7th December 2021
How to Avoid Overusing “Said” in Fictional Dialog
“You use the word ‘said’ way too much,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“You put it on the end of every single line of speech,” she said.
“What else am I supposed to do?” I said.
“Read this blog post,” she said.
“He said” and “she said” are by far the most popular dialog tags used in fiction, and for a good reason. The word “said” doesn’t indicate any emotion and is, in a sense, “invisible” to the reader.
This is exactly what you want when you write dialog. Your readers don’t want to be constantly reminded they’re reading fiction. They want to feel like they’re listening in on a real conversation.
Unlike the writer of the example above, you should use dialog tags sparingly and only deviate from “said” if it adds emotion without being distracting.
Words to Use Instead of Said
Look up “say” in a thesaurus and you’ll get over 50 results (e.g., assert, reply, utter). Turn to (or click on) any of these and you’ll find 50 more (mutter, whisper, blurt). Clearly, there are hundreds of alternatives to “said,” so it’s easy to get carried away and use them too liberally.
When you deviate from “said,” the word you choose should do at least one of the following:
● Convey emotion: the right dialog tag can show that characters are happy, sad, fearful, amused, or irritated.
“What do you mean?” I snapped.
● Indicate volume or tone: with words like “whispered,” “growled,” and “shrieked,” you tell the reader if the character’s voice is loud or soft, or perhaps whether their manner is friendly or menacing.
“Every single line!” she yelled.
● Show context: some words (e.g., asked, demanded, and responded) clarify why the person is speaking.
“Read this blog post,” she answered.
Other Ways to Reduce Dialog Tags
Dialog tags tell the reader who’s doing the talking and, sometimes, how the words sound. But if you incorporate these things into your writing, you won’t need to use so many dialog tags.
The following four techniques will make you less dependent on “he said,” “she said,” and other dialog tags:
Trust your readers to know how conversations work
Most people understand that people usually take turns talking. If two characters are chatting and you start a new line each time the speaker changes, as long as the reader knows who spoke first, they should be able to work out who says what.
“What’s for lunch?” asked Tim.
“Beans on toast,” said his dad.
“Again? We had that yesterday.”
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“And we’ll have it every day until you get a job.”
“I’m doing my best, aren’t I?”
“I know, son, I’m sorry.”
Here, it’s easy for the reader to keep track of who’s speaking because Tim and his dad are taking turns talking. If the conversation were to continue much longer, though, they might begin to get confused. Rather than risk the reader needing to go back and work out whose turn it is to say something, the writer has helpfully included the word “son” in one of dad’s lines.
Use actions to infer who is speaking
Tim sat at the kitchen table. “What’s for lunch?”
His dad picked up the can opener. “Beans on toast.”
In this example, no dialog tags are necessary. The reader can easily guess who’s talking because their words follow what they do.
Let the character’s voice show who they are
The queen scowled at the servant quivering before her. “How dare you defy me?”
“I…I’m sorry, your majesty, I was only…”
The way the characters speak in this exchange clearly shows which one of them says what.
Leave out unnecessary speech
In some ways, fictional dialog should be like real dialog. Your characters should come across like authentic people when they speak so that your readers believe in them and care about their journey.
That said, if your dialog is too realistic, it can be pretty dull; most of what we say in real life wouldn’t be recorded in our biography! You should cut out repetition, “umm-ing and ah-ing,” or small talk—in stories, people only say important things. Keeping your fictional conversations to the essential bits (i.e., what reveals character or moves the story forward) reduces your need for dialog tags.
Polishing Your Fictional Dialog
“Said” really is the best word to indicate speech because readers tend not to notice it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use alternatives. Just be sure to use them only occasionally, and when you do, choose a word that adds emotion and interest.
Remember, dialog tags help us keep track of who’s talking, but excessive and varied tags can be unhelpful because they remind readers that they’re reading. If you can show who’s speaking in other ways, you won’t need to use too many tags.
It’s always worth reading your dialog out loud to check that it flows well and sounds authentic. Our proofreaders can check your writing for slip-ups in spelling and grammar and highlight any repetition or ambiguity. Why not send us a sample of your work right now to proofread for free?
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