The more elaborate or unique a dialog tag, the more it will slow the pace of your writing. Whether it’s through the use of adverbs, or a tag other than said, the reader is far more likely to pause to absorb those words. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not.
The last thing I want in my action scenes is for a reader to stop to digest an obtrusive tag with a lengthy string of adverbs.
That ‘said’ (sorry for the pun), there are times when a non-said may be called for. Whenever you want to draw attention to how something is said, not just what is said; that is a great time to use a different tag. Just be mindful. Don’t overuse other tags and stick with said whenever it’s important to maintain flow.
I agree with Melissa that it’s OK to mix it up, but my added suggestion would be to only mix it up when doing so serves a purpose, and always weigh the gain in impact against the decrease in pace.
Recently, I had a discussion with a fellow writer about the word said. “Said is dead,” he told me, arguing that I should not attribute dialogue with said, which he thought to be overdone and outdated. While we agreed we should avoid adverbs in our writing, he felt said was a boring way to show which character was speaking, and suggested I “mix it up” by using other words.
Citing Stephen King’s On Writing, I disagreed, and shared why the word is still useful. It is part of the scaffolding of writing—when we use said, we give readers a cue about who is talking, but we don’t break the flow of reading. Nothing is worse than using a word that pulls your reader out of a story.
It’s easy to see how adverbs can break the flow of reading.
“You’ll never take me alive,” he cried bravely.
There’s a ridiculous amount of drama in that sentence, unless of course, the writing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. However, you can overdo dialogue attribution even if you are avoiding adverbs. When you use overpowered words, you run the risk of turning dialogue into a soap opera.
“How could you?” he gasped. “I loved you.”
“I know,” she purred, “but I didn’t love you.”
Have I sinned in my own writing? You betcha. I caught my worst sin after a manuscript was published, and had to ask that the book be revised when a new edition was going to be released. The offending word? Coo. My character was raving about a pasta dish, and somehow the dialogue got tagged with the word coo. I don’t know about you, but I have never cooed over carbohydrates. An infant or a puppy, perhaps, but never pasta. I was mortified to see that kind of error in a published novel. The horror! Maybe I hadn’t yet mastered dialogue attribution, but I continue to refine my writing, revising my work with a critical eye.
If you still feel you must deviate from said, you can, to some extent. You can use shouted or whispered, among other words, to show how a person said something. If you show what a character is doing, you can sometimes eliminate dialogue attribution altogether, pairing the dialogue with action:
She cocked the gun and pointed it at the hostage. “Lower your weapon, or I shoot him.”
He placed his revolver on the floor and stood, hands raised to show he wasn’t a threat.
“Now kick it away,” she said.
See? No fancy dialogue attribution required. The first sentence puts the dialogue in context by showing what is happening, providing clues about how something is said.
The third sentence uses said to tag the dialogue without disrupting the flow. Said isn’t dead. Said is a valid way to tag dialogue.
Do you think that said is overused?
About the Author:
Melissa Eskue Ousley is the award-winning author of The Solas Beir Trilogy, a young adult fantasy series. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and their Kelpie, Gryphon. When she’s not writing, Melissa can be found hiking, swimming, scuba diving, or walking along the beach, poking dead things with a stick.
Before she became a writer, she had a number of enlightening jobs, ranging from a summer spent scraping roadkill off a molten desert highway, to years of conducting research with an amazing team of educators at the University of Arizona. Her interests in psychology, culture, and mythology have influenced her writing of The Solas Beir Trilogy.