“Said” is not dead and never was

A common piece of terrible advice bandied about writing forums is “Said is dead”. Basically, the thought is that in your dialog tags, you should avoid using “said”. You should use “replied”, “exclaimed”, “shouted”, or one of any of a myriad of words. This kind of thing is often taught in English classes. The problem is that it’s completely wrong.

Generally, you should avoid dialog tags whenever you can. Each of your characters should have a distinct voice so that dialog tags aren’t needed. The reader should know who is speaking because that’s the way a particular character speaks. This isn’t always possible. If a character says “Hi.”, it a generic enough phrase that you may need to add a tag. Note, you may need a tag. You could also say something like this.

Joe walked into the room. When he spotted Frank, a smile appeared on his face. “Hi.”

or, you could do

Joe walked into the room. When he spotted Frank, he rolled his eyes. “Hi.”

or

Joe walked into the room. When he spotted Frank, his shoulder’s slumped, and he let out a long breath. “Hi.”

With just a few words, you can change how “Hi” sounds. It’s a classic case of show vs tell. When this isn’t feasible, in general, you should use “said” or “asked.” Those words are, for all intents and purposes, invisible. The reader passes over them. When you use other words, you’re drawing more attention to how the speaker is speaking rather that what they’re saying. Overusing them comes off as amateurish.

As with all writing rules, you should follow it unless you have a reason no to. Sometimes, you want to draw attention to how they’re speaking. Maybe you’re trying to set a particular tone to your story, and other words work better for that. There are a thousand different reasons to break this rule, but the important thing is that if you’re breaking it, you should be breaking it for a specific reason. Overusing “said” isn’t really a good reason though. In that case, you should reevaluate your dialog and see if you can’t simply eliminate most of the dialog tags. Try reading it out loud and see if they are really necessary. Remember, the important part of your dialog is the part between the quotes. Ideally, you want the reader to gloss over the tags. For that, “said” is perfect.

 

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