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Monday, 17 January 2011

The important of the dialogue tag...SAID

Why the tagline ISN'T boring and should be used AT ALL TIMES - told through the eyes of a novice.

'But "said" is boring. Why can't I use other taglines such as “demanded”, “whispered", or "shouted"?’ I said, and reached for a red apple from the fruit bowl.

‘Because "said" is invisible,’ said my writing coach. ‘“Demanded”, “whispered”, and “shouted”, are not. Well, “whispered” isn't so bad, and neither is “shouted” if used sparingly, but “demanded”?’ He shook his head. ‘Don't even think of it.’

‘What about -’
I glowered at him as I rubbed the apple to a mirror-shine on my arm. It flaked a bit; must have been in the fruit bowl a while. ‘Well, how do you make clear somebody is shouting or whispering or being demanding then?'

‘With good prose and a little trust of your readers.’
‘Trust?’ I took a bite of the apple. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Do you mind?’ My writing coach brushed off sprayed pieces of Royal Gala. ‘If your writing is strong, your readers will know whether your characters have “whispered” “shouted” or “whined.”’

‘I can’t have whined?’
‘Certainly not! Use your writing style to direct your readers to what your characters are saying.’

I pointed the apple at him in excitement. ‘But that’s telling. We’ve always been told not to tell. Ha! Gotcha.’

My coach, sighing, pushed the apple away from his face. ‘Telling is something different. Telling is just that, telling –’

‘So well explained. Not.’ I chewed on the apple somewhat triumphantly. ‘My English teacher taught me to use my imagination for taglines. I remember I had to think of fifty alternatives for homework and then use them in a story the next day. I thought up more than fifty. Wanna hear them?’

‘Er, no thanks.’
‘Go on. You’ll be amazed: cooed, fenced, claimed, queried, presented, alleged –’
'Creative writing is different to the English lessons you had at school.' He reached for his coat.
‘Going so soon?’
‘I’ve just remembered I needed to de-flea the cat.’
I put the core of my apple in my pocket - there wasn’t a bin, and I loathed litter.
My coach nodded to my core, safely nestling inside my coat. ‘Why’d you do that?’
‘I hate litter. Law-abiding citizen, me.’

‘Unnecessary taglines can be described as litter. They are pointless, and clutter up your writing,’ he said as I stared at him with slow realisation dawning on my face. ‘Worse, they can distract your reader from the story.’

‘They aren’t helping the reader, then?’

He shook his head. ‘Not in the slightest. Do you think your readers are stupid? Do you think they can’t understand whether your characters are shouting, querying or even whispering? Or do you think your writing is so poor that you can’t engage your readers in what your characters are saying?’

‘Neither. I think neither!’

‘Well then.’ He looked pleased with himself as he buttoned up his coat. ‘Next time though let’s have this discussion during the writing circle meeting, and not in the gents’.’

‘Sure.’ I grabbed another apple. ‘Posh place though. I mean, not often you get fruit in the loos.’

‘You’ll find,' he said with a smirk, 'those apples are soap.’


  1. I think 'said' is really a sort of punctuation mark. If you want to test how invisible it is then try adding an adverb after every 'said' and see how clunky it feels, he said knowingly.

  2. My two-cents worth is that it's not really seen or read. It's just there. So when another word is used intstead it really stands out.


  3. Thanks Rod and Jo. Glad you agree, some don't and at those I say, grrrr lol

  4. One of the most valuable things I;ve learned about dialogue is to eliminate as many tags as possible and show that someone spoke "angrily" instead of telling the reader. Great reminder! Loved the post!

  5. I try to avoid tags as much as possible because they're not really necessary in a lot of cases. However, I have to admit I'm not in the "'said' is invisible" camp. I have ALWAYS seen it. It is not invisible to me, and it grates when I do see it.

  6. I like 'said'!
    Working in a school, where dialogue tags are rammed down students' throats with impunity, I find it a great relief to leave the damned things behind.

  7. I'm in the camp of said (or says in the present tense) is practically invisible. Using other words (on a regular basis) is telling rather than showing (as Stephanie said). I'd only use other tags to emphasise, if I couldn't find a better way to show it.

  8. I was asked to do a talk at the local school (year 6) about writing.
    I begin, "kids if you want to be a serious writer, it's time to stop listening to your teacher."
    The kids loved it, but the teacher's face was a picture!
    I then went on to talk about "said" and "ly" ending words, and beginning a sentence with "and/but" etc.
    Not sure if I'll be asked back!

  9. Awesome post! Never thought about "said" like that before.

  10. As a writer I'm now trying to eliminate 90% of my tags because, as a reader, I absolutely, positively can not stand to read the word 'said' ten million times - it isn't transparent, especially when it follows a question, it sticks out as much as a more descriptive tag, if not more. Too many saids and I stop reading altogether.

  11. "Said" has to be used wisely, I agree Sessha. But other taglines like "growled", "whispered", "queried" for instance stick out a mile.

    If poss don't use any, use action instead like "Blah, blah, blah." He turned his back. "Blah, blah, blah."