‘Nuff Said

By Elaine Viets

Jenny, my first editor, gave me this advice: When you write dialogue, never use any tags but “said.” and “ask.”
As advice goes, it was pretty good. Jenny told me that the eye passes over “said” and “asked” and doesn’t stop my story, the way flashier tags did. Nothing said amateur writer like so-called “creative” dialogue tags. I avoided the hundreds of synonyms for the simple, efficient “said.” Here’s why:

“It’s time to go,” he insisted.
“I agree,” she concurred.
“My arm hurts,” he whimpered.
“Come along, you big baby,” she jeered.
“Hey, that hurt,” he yelped.

I also knew adding adverbs to “said” could quickly get me into Tom Swifty territory:

“The roof doesn’t leak any more,” Tom said dryly.
“I’ve lost my hair,” Tom said baldly.

But good advice can go too far. Always using “said” as a tag can make your novel look like a ping-pong match. Consider this dialogue:

“I’m leaving you,” she said. “I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah!” he said. “You’ll come running back. You always do.”
“Not this time,” she said. “Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me make it up to you.”
“You can’t,” she said. “I’m outta here.”

Suppose I took out some “saids,” and added observations instead.

“I’m leaving you,” she said. “I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah!” he said. “You’ll come running back. You always do.”
She folded the last blouse into her suitcase. “Not this time. Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.” She zipped her suitcase shut.
He handed her a Tiffany blue box. “I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you.”
She opened it, and studied the diamond earrings with hard eyes. “You can’t. I’m outta here.” She tossed the box on the bed and rolled her suitcase out the door.

That’s better. And the dialogue is improved even more if I add the characters’ names:

“I’m leaving you, Josh. I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah! You’ll come running back, Marie. You always do.”
Marie folded the last blouse into her suitcase. “Not this time, Josh. Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.” She zipped her suitcase shut.
Josh handed her a Tiffany blue box. “I’m sorry, Marie. Let me make it up to you.”
She opened it, and studied the diamond earrings with hard eyes. “You can’t. I’m outta here.” Marie tossed the box on the bed and rolled her suitcase out the door.

Okay, Hollywood won’t be calling to option that dialogue, but you get the idea. Adding names and observations helps tag your dialogue, and cut back on the “saids.”
You can also use too few “saids.” Mystery writer Robert B. Parker is a master of dialogue, but he could be stingy with his “saids.” Consider this dialogue from his novel, Family Honor, featuring PI Sunny Randall. It’s written in the first person.

“They both brought people home,” she said. “If one of them was away the other would bring in a guest.”
“How about Millicent?”
“They didn’t seem to care if she knew.”
“Did they know?’
“About each other?”
“Um hmm.”
“I don’t know. They weren’t very careful. They didn’t seem to care if John or I knew.”
“Know any of the people that they brought home?”
“Were they people who came often or did they go for variety?”
“Variety, I’m afraid.”
“Both of them?”

Are you lost? I am, too. There’s more – at least another page more without a “said” to be seen. Some “I saids” every four lines or so could have made this intriguing conversation about infidelity much easier to follow.
When all is said and done, “said” makes a good dialogue tag – in moderation.
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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

44 thoughts on “‘Nuff Said

  1. I concur that some “creative” dialogue tags are not needed. They can be redundant, as in “‘I agree,’ she concurred.” And I would jeer at an author who used such repetitiveness. But I would insist that at times a more concrete, specifying dialogue tag is important.

    “‘It hurts,’ he whimpered” says something different than “‘It hurts,’ he bellowed.” And both add more than “‘It hurts,’ he said.”

    I’m not denying the value of Elaine’s example dialogue. It works nicely. But it’s not always wrong to use the shorter, more direct method of a specifying dialogue tag.

    “That’s my two-cents worth,” he said parsimoniously.

    • Like the Tom Swifty in your comment, Eric. One problem with some those dialogue tags is my editor questions whether you can talk and whimper or talk and laugh at the same time. Her solution is to change them this way, “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said with a laugh. And “Ouch. That hurt,” he said with a whimper. I think that’s clumsy and often recast the sentence.

  2. Great reminders, Elaine. When I was starting to play with writing, Browne & King’s “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” was my go-to reference book, and the sections on dialogue were most helpful.
    On another Parker comment–I was reading one of his novels years ago (still at that playing with writing stage–although some would say I still am) and checked his tags, since I hadn’t noticed any. On a second look, he had tagged almost every line with “said” and I hadn’t noticed any of them.
    I prefer beats whenever possible. After all, the role of tags, etc., is to let the reader know who’s speaking as smoothly and unobtrusively as possible.

  3. Great post, Elaine. I agree. I try for a mix of dialogue tags and beats. I once had a young reader give me a long list of her suggestions for creative dialogue tags, telling me it would make my story more interesting. When I went back and looked at some of the scenes, I found I had used far too many dialogue tags in a long conversation, where they should have been stripped out completely and replaced with occasional beats.

  4. Yes, Elaine, from my perspective you’re right! I have learned over the past 40 years, that dialogue tags are mostly wasted words. Descriptors work better and keep the pace of the reader’s eye/mind flow smooth. A he said, she said every once in a while with extended dialogue helps the reader to stay on track, but overuse slows the pace of the reader and the book.

  5. It’s a balancing act indeed, with no absolute rules, one that you handle well. I’ve never felt confused about speakers or bogged down in “saids” in your books.
    I used to have students play with Tom Swifties when we did the Warriner’s chapters on adverbs. I also played them the “Lee” song from 1776.

  6. Yes, Elaine, balance is the key. Said and (occasionally for variety) asked are marvelous workers who do their job and get out of the way. I call them the defaults. When you put in an action beat, have it mean something other than just to signal who’s talking. Characterization, for example.

    Some writers have proudly announced they don’t use any tags, ever, just action beats. They don’t realize that makes the reading experience more of a slog. Every time a reader’s mind is called upon to form a picture, it requires some synaptical effort. They also wonder what the action means. Too many “Margie picked up a pencil” or “Stan tugged his earlobe” used only to tell us who’s speaking, wears the reader out and actually detracts from the most important thing: the dialogue itself.

    • Totally agree, Jim. And I’ve seen some strange action beats, scratching his nose, pulling on his shirt, etc. Those add nothing to the action or the character’s development.

  7. Maybe it’s because of my theatre background, but I don’t have a problem following dialogue with little attribution.

    Marie should have put on the diamond earrings before she left.

  8. Great advice, Elaine. I’m with you that overusing “said” can turn a dialogue exchange into a ping-pong match.

    My ideal is to create dialogue so unique, so individual, so distinctive that it’s obvious which character is speaking. A high bar, and one I rarely reach, if at all. Elmore Leonard, for instance, had a fantastic ear for dialogue that could stand all on its own for passages at a time, but I’m no Elmore Leonard 🙂

    I’m a fan of using action tags, but have been guilty of overusing these. Too many can make characters seem fidgety and draw too much attention to the actions. A little goes a long way in my experience, something I’ve learned the hard way with action tags.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. Happy 2021!

    • Glad you liked the post, Dale. I’m in the middle of a novel and wrestling with the issue now. I needed to review it, and these comments by other writers help.

  9. Great post, Elaine. May I add to your Tom Swifties,

    “I cut myself with a chainsaw,” he said offhandedly.

    I more and more find myself getting lost when reading a conversation that doesn’t have some sort of markers such as “he said/she said.” I love Cormac McCarthy’s work but he often eschews punctuation, particularly quotation marks, in favor of

    — She just left.
    — Where did she go?
    — Don’t know. Gone like last year’s whisper.

    and so on.

    I like your suggestion to add observations. Thanks for the great advice.

  10. Another rookie mistake is to use names within dialogue instead of “said.” In real conversation, most people will identify the person they are talking to at the beginning of the conversation. “Hi, Jim, how’s it going?” Then, if it’s a two person conversation, it’s normally only used again if imparting very important information. “He’s dead, Jim.”

    If it’s a crowd or action scene and confusing, using names more generously is better than confusing the reader.

    It’s also good to remember that each character should have enough of their personality in the way that they speak for the reader to know immediately who is speaking without a tag.

  11. The Swifties are hilarious, Elaine. Thanks for the giggle. For rapid-fire dialogue, my personal rule is no more than 4 or 5 lines without either a body cue or tag to keep the reader grounded.

  12. Great post, Elaine. And good discussion. Dialogue tags vs. action beats and characterizations is something I’m learning…”slowly, as usual,” she drawled.

    I’m currently working my way through a novel that sports no, zero, zilch, dialogue tags. (I think I heard about it at TKZ.) I’m reading it for the educational value, but the story’s good, too. So far, I haven’t been confused at all as to who is speaking. And the action beats aren’t overused IMHO.

    Last, another Swiftie…from my music performance days.

    “I love Beethoven,” she said melodically. Ouch, that’s bad! 🙂

  13. I use “said”, “asked”, and “replied” most of the time. I will use other tags to show types of speech, i.e.,” shouted”, “whispered”.

    Harold Emanuel

    Book: Murder in the Sunset Years
    Blog: Murder at Your Fingertips – Tools for Cyber-sleuths
    Facebook: HaroldEmanuelAuthor

  14. Thank you for this, Elaine. Very informative. I like that balance is the key. I’ve been following the blog of Jerry Jenkins for a while now and he wrote an advice piece on writing a novel with out any dialogue tags at all (as he has done in some of his novels), so I’m putting this in to practice at the moment, challenging as it is, I find it works well and makes a story flow.

  15. Good topic, Elaine. Interesting to read the comments, too. I’m in the dialogue balance camp. My view is that tag adjectives/adverbs are a no-no, and that both beats and “he said/she said” can be overused. Too much can take the reader out of the story or downright irritate them. Not enough can create confusion as to who is saying what. It’s really about keeping the attributes as silent as possible while making sure the dialogue furthers the story, aka – a balance.

    Terry brought up Browne and King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” which I recommend, especially for writers in their early stage which I think I’m still in. There’s an interesting take on “he said/she said” in Chapter 5 – Dialogue Mechanics – which I’ll quote:

    “…keep your speaker attributions transparent. Don’t open a paragraph of dialogue with the speaker attribute. Instead, start a paragraph with dialogue and place the speaker attribution in the first natural break in the first sentence …place the character’s name first (Garry said) …reversing the two (said Garry) is less professional; an old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavor (‘Run Spot’, said Jane.). After all, ‘said he’ fell out of favor sometime during the Taft administration.”

    This is good general advice, but sometimes “said she/said he” works very well in small doses. It’s all about how the dialogue resonates.

    • I agree, Garry. Browne and King’s claim about reversing the two (said Sue) being first-grade reader level sounds awfully nitpicky. I understand where the advice stems from, but a blanket rule like this implies if the writer dares not to comply, they’ll be labeled as unprofessional or petulant. Crazy.

    • My Brit crit partner uses the “reverse” tags a lot. It bothers me–sounds stilted, but he’s a Brit. When I pointed it out, he said that ws ‘normal’ in his world.

  16. Thanks for a great article. I’m also in the balance camp, as I am in all things (as an unapologetic Libra).

    During drafts, some tags like snapped or whispered will find their way onto the page. During rewrites I try to make the dialogue combined with action beats make it clear how something is said. I’m still a relative newbie so am always on the lookout for better ways of enhancing my writing.

    I eliminated Tom Swifties a while back. Some of those in the comments are hilarious.

  17. Yeah, I’m continually working on this.

    I don’t think I saw much mention of “intro tags” in this thread:
    He said, “Where you going?”
    “Out where?”
    “Just out.”

    I like to use them to vary things up. And sometimes, they just sound right.

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