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Is it Something I Said?

posted in: Writing Craft | 12

Good morning!

One of the fun things about writing is we can create entire new worlds, give birth to countless people, and do with them what we wish (unless our muse doesn’t like it, then we’re in trouble. 😛 lol).

CP Bialois
CP Bialois

With all that power comes great responsibility… Okay, so we’ve heard that one a hundred times. Here’s something I bet we’ve heard millions of times: Use said.

That one single, simple dialogue tag can have an affect few others do. It can inform us the character said something, stop readers like a punch to the nose, or be omitted and/or replaced by action.

The first one sounds obvious. Whenever we give a character dialogue, we’re to use dialogue tags. At least, that’s what we’re often taught early on in school.

Throughout grade school and junior high I was told to use said or asked after every dialogue I wrote. To me, it seemed repetitive and drove me crazy. I understand the thought process behind it as my teachers wanted to make sure we had all the same basics. It makes sense, just like if we build a car we’re not going to start by putting the body on an empty frame.

Mechanics are important, and having to learn to use dialogue tags helped me to focus more than I probably would have. Still, the thing that got me was having to read said or asked after every. Single. Dialogue. It hurt my love of writing by turning it into a mundane exercise since I used a lot of dialogue.

To help you understand me, I’d like to share my personal story with you. My dad taught me how to read by using comic books after I refused to cooperate with the school books (Even at that age I could only take so much of “Bill fell down the hole”). Because of that, most of my early stories were 99.99999% dialogue. It was what I knew, so it’s what I used.

The saving grace for me came in seventh grade when my teacher told us if we used more than one said or asked in a story we’d get a zero.

I seriously wanted to do a back flip and risk killing myself. It also meant I had to get creative, but more on that in a few.

As for using dialogue tags stopping us like a punch to the nose, that is something that’s far more preferential than a do or don’t, in my opinion.

As with everything, it depends on who we talk to and what their preferences are. For many, the words said or asked are transparent. They pass over them without a second thought. They are often considered punctuation and that allows them to be pushed aside.

There are plenty of blog posts and how-to-write books that’ll explain why it’s bad to use too many, but if it works for you go for it!

On the flip side, I can only speak for myself in that I hate using them. For me, they interrupt the flow of writing, and when listening to audio books it’s hard to hear them over and over, so you could say I’m in the “punch in the nose” train of thought. lol

Here’s where I had to get creative in seventh grade and learned I wasn’t the pioneer I thought I was. lol.

By: Justus Hayes

When writing or reading, I see the events in my head like a movie, so I started using a style using actions instead. (Imagine my irritation at learning I didn’t create it. Lol)

For me, it felt more natural to the what I saw in my head. Here’s a comparison of what I mean.

Using said: “I don’t know, Jesse. What are we going to do now?” asked Paul as he looked at her and ran a hand through his hair.

Using said at the end: “I don’t know, Jesse. What are we going to do now?” asked Paul.

Using action: “I don’t know, Jesse.” Paul ran his hand through his hair before looking at her. “What are we going to do now?”

While the difference is only a couple of words, that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. In the example using said, the action can be added before, between the two dialogue sentences, or afterwards.

For the second example, it can seem awkward by saying who spoke after the dialogue, especially if there are only two people and it’s the middle of the conversation. In this case, it’s wise for us to think if it’ll work better at the end, start the sentence with it, or even omit it. It can be a tough choice, and I often think of it in similar terms as deciding whether or not to keep a scene.

In the action, it can have a more natural feel and makes the image easier to visualize for some. One of the biggest downsides to it is using the same phrases multiple times. I’m guilty of having my characters smile, nod, shake their heads, and laugh, so I know this pain well. The best advice I can give is to make sure you’re aware of this and try to change it up or skip having them smile for a few lines. It’s an ongoing process, but isn’t everything? Lol

As with everything, our choices are determined by what we feel works best for our stories. Whichever style we choose, it’s important to have fun with it.

What do you like to do with dialogue tags? Are there any tricks or ideas I haven’t covered you’d like to share? As always, I’d love to hear your thought.

Until next time, let your imaginations fly!

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12 Responses

  1. aliciaminor

    Great subject/topic! I love dialogues in my stories. For me, any story is empty, lifeless/meaningless without hearing what your characters say/said. In my writings, I do not use said or asked when it’s obvious who said or asked it unless it gets confusing who said/asked what. Between two people talking to one another simultaneously, actions/behavior may replace the said/asked taglines which brings me to the three elements of show, don’t tell- actions, behavior, dialogue. I agree that it gets repetitive and this is when style of writings come in. We could also mention character’s names in the sentence instead of using said/asked. Any which way we look and dissect it, it’s all for the fun and passion to write. Thanks for sharing.

    • CP Bialois

      My pleasure. 🙂 I totally agree. Dialogue adds so much more to a scene. There’s something about banter, even if it’s freindly, that adds an amaing amount of energy and life to the piece.

      Good point about mentioning their names. That’s an awesome way to break up the tennis match, even if it’s just one givng the other a strange look. lol

      Definitely. We’ve got to have fun. It helps keep us sane and young- not necessarily in that order. lol

  2. David Edmonds

    I often hear/see the first construction–‘“I don’t know, Jesse. What are we going to do now?” asked Paul as he looked at her and ran a hand through his hair.’– but would avoid it for a number of reasons.

    1. What’s important is what is being said, not that your character runs a hand through his hair. To put this meaningless action after dialogue, connected with “as,” almost always dilutes the punch. The impact should always be at the end.

    2. The timing is not clear. Does the action occur before, during or after the dialogue?

    3. It requires a tag so the reader knows who is speaking.

    The third example is perfect–“I don’t know, Jesse.” Paul ran his hand through his hair before looking at her. “What are we going to do now?” You’ve got dialogue blended with action, no need for a tag, and the punch at the end. Pure Goldilocks!

    Thanks, CP.

    • CP Bialois

      You’re welcome, David. 🙂

      Yeah, I’m not a fan of the first one, either. It just sounds awkward, but I’m sure I may have slipped a couple of those in over the years. lol I used to never use tags, but they’ve been creeping into my writing lately. As long as it sounds fluid and I don’t flinch, I ‘m good with them.

      Thanks! The third style is my preferred one. It just feels more fluid and natural. 🙂

  3. Donald Gay

    Great advise CP,
    I am in agreement, the first thought is they become to easy to use. It is easy to float in between one or all of them. I like the third one as well. It does appear to be more realistic in conversation.
    A great reminder,

    • CP Bialois

      Thanks, Donald. 🙂

      Agreed. I wouldn’t be surprised if said/asked were some of the most used words in our written language. Now that would be an interesting research project. lol

      Oh yeah, it feels so much more fluid to me. If nothing else, it may help force us to pay attention when reading. lol

  4. Peter Guinta

    I mostly agree with Mr. Bialois’ contention that “said” is often overused or unnecessary. Personally, I never use “asked.” I figure a question mark tells the reader that information. As far as “said,” I try to use it only when the person speaking might possibly be confused with someone else. As a journalist, I used it all the time. It’s already been pointed out that readers don’t really see it. It’s a sort of punctuation. I’ve found that reading dialogue out loud is a good way to tell if it sounds natural. But here’s a thought: Dialogue without its tags is tighter. I want to squeeze out the fluff from my writing so there’s more room for sensory input.

    • CP Bialois

      Thanks for commenting, Peter.

      Good point, I love the analogy of squeezing out the fluff. I never thought of it that way. Anything that helps us to enhance our characters more is always a plus. 🙂

  5. Ed Ireland

    I love my dialogue. My dialogue sets moods, allows characters to interact and fill in blind story spots, validates information and so on down an endless list. Without dialogue, a book is like a rowboat without oars. Sure, you can dip your hands in and paddle but it takes forever and you don’t know WHAT could be in that water.
    So that said, I use tags to let the reader get a better idea of the feeling behind the dialogue. For instance;
    “I could slip my dagger into your brain easily Ted” said Wanda. -or-
    “I could slip my dagger into your brain easily Ted” joked Wanda
    See, my reader knows she’s joking. Hopefully, for Ted’s sake. She could have smirked it to show her superiority too. For every emotion, there is a dialogue tag to describe it. Use Said is too mundane to be the end-all of writing dialogue.

    • CP Bialois

      No argument here. I think most of the trouble my characters get into is because of their smart mouths. lol

      To be honest, I never got the hate using words like joked, sneered, growled, and so on get a bad rap. Anyone thatsays “you can’t growl a sentence” hasn’t heard me with our pets when they’re acting extra special. lol

  6. Elizabeth Rhodes

    My schools encouraged frequent use of tags, but forbade the use of “said.” We were to use any verb in its place no matter how contrived. I think the goal was to encourage us to expand our vocabulary but I hated having to crack open a thesaurus every third line of my stories.

    Like you, I don’t like using tags. More than that I hate the repetition of “s/he said.” Maybe that’s a result of the above.

    I’ve been experimenting lately with using few to no tags in my writing and I like the results a lot better. I’ll either replace the tags with action beats or make characters drop names mid-conversation to let the reader know who’s saying what. I wrote one chapter of a new project using no tags at all.

    But sometimes tags can be the best method in a given situation, and constantly using beats can be just as repetitive as constant tags. It’s a matter of balance, I think, where that balance falls is a matter of style.

    • CP Bialois

      Totally agree. It all depends on what we feel works best.