How Are They Talking?

How Are They Talking?
Terry Odell

This topic has come up here at TKZ before, but I recently read a book by a best-selling author, traditionally published, that had my teeth on edge, so I’m revisiting it.

Dialogue. Characters are talking. It’s up to the author to make sure the reader knows who it is uttering those gems. The terms I’ve learned are “tags” for things like he said, she asked, etc., and identify the speaker.

“I’m hungry,” Gordon said. “What’s for lunch?” she asked.

Note: It’s also considered acceptable to use “said” for questions.

Beats show a character’s action. Gordon opened the refrigerator. “I’m hungry.”

Note: It’s better to use either a tag or a beat, not both for the same dialogue line.

What was my problem with the book I read? The author (or her editor) seemed reluctant to use the word “said.” Reluctant? It was as if she thought a rattlesnake would strike every time she did, and she used more “creative” words instead.

While there’s nothing creative about said, it has the bonus of being invisible. I was reading novel by the late Robert B. Parker when I was a beginning writer, and I stopped to evaluate his dialogue. The man tagged almost every single line of dialogue with “said” and yet I realized I’d read three full pages and hadn’t noticed a single one.

What do these creative tags do for the reader? For this reader, they jump off the page. Instead of simply letting me know who’s saying the line, they’re making me stop and think. They’re distracting. After a few chapters they become downright annoying.

What word choices did this author use? Let me count the tags.

corrected, allowed, accused, argued, tossed back, explained, grumbled, muttered, murmured, suggested, noted, offered (that was a favorite), interjected, reminded (him), insisted, implored, urged, warned, added, demanded, agreed, promised, explained, tacked on, allowed, pressed, put in, pointed out, challenged, ordered, urged, agreed.

And this was in the first 5 chapters, after which I stopped tracking them. I counted a whopping 8 uses of said in these chapters, and one of asked. Most of the “said” uses were connected with action beats, as in “She said as she poured the coffee.” Both aren’t needed for the same line.

Although this was a good story, the read was an effort for me as the creative tag words made me stop and think about them. I’d rather be thinking about the story.

What about you, TKZers? Do you prefer the invisible said or do you enjoy the creative alternatives? Why?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

38 thoughts on “How Are They Talking?

  1. Even though it is only a quick and almost invisible tic, I avoid ‘said’ – or any other dialogue tag – because it is rarely necessary to attribute dialogue.

    That said, when I have to – usually to keep a group dialogue connected – ‘said’ is the choice the great majority of the time, and anything else a carefully and deliberately chosen rarity.

    Beats work well, and use the space better most of the time. Why spend a huge number of words on ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ over the course of a long novel?

    After I write, I listen. Nothing like the reading of your deathless prose by a robot voice to make those ‘he said’ stand out. It can get most comical.

    It’s a process – getting the reader to understand who’s speaking but interrupting the flow as little as possible, and being parsimonious with the extra words.

    Once you become, as a writer, sensitized to ‘said’, it’s easier to reserve it for the few times when it’s the best choice – and under those circumstances, invisible.

    • Thanks for your input, Alicia. I haven’t read anything you’ve written, so I can’t judge how well you can get readers to understand who’s talking without many beats or tags.
      Spitfire dialogue can get hard to follow. My brain can’t seem to grasp more than 4 instances before I have to go back and count. And when there are more than two people in the conversation, it can become a bigger challenge.
      I agree that listening to a computer voice read dialogue can call attention to the ‘saids’ but the eye doesn’t see them the way the ear hears them.
      The bottom line: readers have to be able to follow who’s talking. If you do it so that it’s seamless, you’ve done your job.

      • Exactly. Seamless.

        My #1 Rule is: Don’t confuse the Reader.

        I take that very seriously.

        Doing it in dialogue TAKES MORE TIME AND WORK. Not every writer wants to make that effort, and that’s how you got to the published book that annoyed you to read.

        It may or may not affect the STORY, but it definitely affects the literary quality of the work.

        And, like everything, if you make it a priority for a focused while, in the future it will become what you do by default – and require MUCH less editing to create.

  2. You nailed it, Terry! Excellent advice on using said or an action beat, but not both. And if unclear or the writer is in doubt, include the said. I recall how James Scott Bell’s Sucker Punch showed us how much of a book can be based on dialogue. Jim’s work showed a fine mix of said and action beats, guiding the reader without clutter, even with multiple characters in the same scene.

  3. I use “said” if I’m not using a beat. I’m not opposed to a writer using an unusual dialogue tag occasionally, to emphasize something, but not 32 different and unusual tags in the first five chapters.

  4. Yeah, this is a major issue and takes up a good chunk of my book. There seems to be this idea out there that if you never use “said” you demonstrate what a skilled writer you are. It actually slows things down and “tires” the reader (this is especially true of the overuse of action beats).

    • After reading the book used for this post, I can’t agree more. Calling attention to the words instead of the story can’t be a good thing.
      OK, maybe if you write literary fiction. But few of us here do.

  5. I smile to myself as I read this post because I think of the years of training I’ve done as a result of following TKZ and lessons just like this. I started out as one of those writers who substituted other words for the unobtrusive said. As a beginner, you’re thinking “well gee I must not be very creative if all I can ever do is tag it ‘said’.” So you try to show your stuff. Then over time you learn the lesson stated here–‘said’ is nearly invisible and makes for a smoother read.

    I won’t say I don’t occasionally get tempted to get cutesy with tags, but that’s what revision is for. And as Alicia noted above, sometimes you don’t need tags at all.

    • Agree, BK. In genre fiction, as the oft-quoted Elmore Leonard said, (opined, declared, urged?), if it sounds writerly, get rid of it.
      Our job is to make things easier for the reader to follow, not impress them with our vocabulary.

  6. If I use a dialogue tag, it’s said. Rarely, I might use an alternative, but only if it adds to the overall image, and NEVER with an adverb.

  7. Great post, Terry. I agree. And I’d rather have a few extra “he said”s than the long spitfire conversations where I have to repeatedly go back and count to see whose turn it is to talk. The few extra saids don’t bother me. The counting does.

    That said (sorry, I couldn’t resist using it), I think action beats are a very useful way to show the conversation and provide more depth into what is happening.


  8. Good post. Any tag line verb should indicate a form of utterance. In other words, you can’t “smile” a line of dialogue. As you indicated, “said” is the best tag line verb out there, precisely because it is invisible.

    However, there are many horrible “instructors” who teach writing students their tag lines should be interesting. Of course, that defeats the purpose of the tag line, which is to let the reader know which character is talking, but unobtrusively.

    As a former editor, I’ve kept a list for several years of inane tag line verbs I’ve seen in manuscripts, everything from “ejaculated” to “sentenced” to “trotted out.” The list currently contains around 200 verbs, none of which indicate a form of utterance. Anyone who would like a copy should email me at

    • Thanks, Harvey. I didn’t get around to mention that tags have to be “talking” words. And they need to match the dialogue. Pet peeve: “Hissing” words with no sibilants.

  9. Great post, Terry. I enjoy a balance between said and action beats, with more saids than beats. I use tags very sparingly. I use them a bit more than I did in my urban fantasies, which is to say, I use them a little. The fantasies tended to be beat heavy.

  10. Terry, I share your annoyance with “saidisms.” It seems to be a cyclical trend that goes in and out of fashion with time. Looking back at books I read as a kid, many used flowery or adverb-loaded attributions. Then the more sparse “said” became accepted.

    In the ’70s and ’80s, dialogue only w/ no tags was the trend. I remember writing teachers saying the dialogue itself should make clear who’s speaking w/o attribution. I agree with that to a point but not at the sacrifice of clarity. If I have to go backwards to figure out who’s talking, that yanks me out of the story.

    Audiobooks pose a different problem b/c repetitive “saids” are equally jarring.

    I tend to use action tags to the exclusion of attributions and probably overdo that. It’s a balancing act.

  11. Good point, Debbie, about the books you read as a kid having a different kind of attributions. There, the adverbs might help the young reader understand more about the feelings behind/meanings of the dialogue.
    Yes, it’s a balancing act.

  12. Wow. That’s quite a list, Terry. The author must have a well-used thesaurus close at hand.

    If it’s necessary to identify the speaker, I like the unobtrusive “said.” Some alternative tags like “murmured” or “muttered” are all right since they convey more than just the identification of the speaker. It depends on the situation. But when it begins to look like a synonym parade, it spoils the story.

  13. I always simply use “said.” However, in both my reading and writing, I enjoy dialogue beats. I believe they give a cinematic quality to the prose and are good ways to highlight character traits and add subtext.

    • I’d have to go back and chart my said vs beat usage, but I think a general rule of thumb for me, is if the dialogue is short and moving quickly between the characters, I’ll use said rather than a beat, which would slow the pace for that section.
      And vice versa, of course.

  14. This was very interesting. I’ve made a similar observation before, but more on the independent authors. It drives me nuts. Hope you get inspired to bring us more in the future on these issues.

    • Thanks, Ben. The book I used as an example in this post was traditionally published by a best-selling author.
      I enjoy writing about craft topics, so if there are any you’d like to see here at TKZ, let me know, and I’ll try to find the inspiration.

  15. Those who think traditional published books, these days, are extensively edited make me laugh. This books sounds like something the author pulled out of a box covered in cobwebs from the attic and dumped on the editor’s desk. The editor ran it through a spellchecker and threw it into the publishing pipe line. If I were a major author, I’d pay for my own editing before I submitted my book so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

    And the only thing worse than amateur dialog tags is confusing the reader about who is speaking.

    • You’re right about traditional publishers having fewer editors with less time these days. I would think this author would have revised the cobweb covered manuscript before submitting it, and I suppose I should go back and look at previous books to see if these tags are part of her “style” and I was too green to recognize them at the time.

  16. Good topic, Terry. It took awhile for me to become comfortable with using “said” the majority of the time when writing dialogue, but y’all here at TKZ beat (not literally) that out of me.

    I just read one of JSB’s newest novels, and I have to say that he is a master at writing dialogue with just the right mix of action beats and saids. I learned a lot about the craft just paying attention to the dialogue.

    One thing I picked up from the comments this morning is this: using all those fancy-schmancy tags just makes us look like pretentious attention-seekers, instead of authors who want to serve our readers.

    I’ll opt for the second choice, thank you very much, so away I go to slay the fancy-schmancies…

    (We can make up words here, yes?) 🙂

  17. I was working at a newspaper once when the publisher walked into a newsroom, mad as heck, and slapped the latest edition of the paper down. There were red marks all over the front page.
    “This is full of mistakes!” she yelled. “I can’t believe nobody proofread this!” Then she went back to her office and slammed the door.
    We gathered around the paper to see what she meant — she’d circled every instance of the word “said.”
    A couple of hours later, she came back out with an edict, a list of synonyms to “said” that we were supposed to use instead. You know, things like, “pronounced” and “commented” and “conveyed.” There were two major problems in this. First, you learn to use “said” and nothing but “said” on day one of journalism school. Second, many of her alternatives carried emotional content. They imply something about the person doing the saying. As a journalist just presenting the facts, this is a big, big, big no-no.
    So some stinker at the newsroom created and distributed another list of synonyms for “said.” Words like “lied” and “farted.”
    Imagine the newspaper article:
    “This bill is going to do wonders for the local economy,” lied the mayor.
    “I applaud the city council for taking this step to improve downtown safety,” the police chief farted.
    The publisher lost much of her news staff soon after. Journalism jobs are scarce, but not THAT scarce.

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