In the early 2010’s, my writing underwent two dramatic paradigm shifts in a single summer.
I was by no means new to writing in the early 2010’s, but I had reached a place where I wanted to actively improve my writing. I was taking classes, going to workshops, borrowing craft books from the library, and scouring the internet for advice. I devoured knowledge like only an undiagnosed ADHD-teenager could.
From the structure of entire novels to the structuring of a sentence and everything in between, I learned and practiced and learned some more. I studied grammar and syntax and word choice and, fatefully, dialogue.
Said is dead
The first shift began, as many things did in the early 2010’s, with Pinterest. The writing Pinterest board walked so our beloved Instagram #WritingCommunity could run. And it was on one of those boards that young Lizzie came across this image – or at least one very similar.
Said was dead. Description was the argument. Said was boring, plain, easy to ignore. It was, in every way, what an author should avoid.
Long live said
The second shift began, as many things still do in coming-of-age media, at summer camp.
Nerd camp, to be specific.
Let me be perfectly clear. I didn’t have an epiphany while canoeing across a lake hours away from civilization or while hiking through the forest and communing with nature. I spent weeks crafting an application and paid actual money to go to summer school. There were teenage Shakespearean blood rivalries like any summer camp, but ours grew from a desperate need to prove that creative writing was better than expository writing.
So, nerd camp.
In any case, young nerd Lizzie spent a month taking daily lessons from the resident author at a coastal university in the United States and was taught that an author should always and only use said.
Long live said. Description was the argument. Said was boring, plain, easy to ignore. It was, in every way, what an author should embrace.
. . . what?
I wish I could say that teenage Lizzie was smart enough to reconcile these two apparently contradictory principles, but I wasn’t. It was, unfortunately, the late 2010’s when I realized these two thoughts weren’t contradictory at all.
In fact, said is dead and long live said weren’t even complete thoughts because it was never about said.
“But, Lizzie, both ‘rules’ focus on the use of said!” you say. “How is it possible that neither rule is about said?”
The same way it’s not about the sidewalk when I tell my toddlers they can’t step off the sidewalk without holding my hand. There is something bigger I can’t explain to them because they don’t have the experience to understand it yet. Until my toddlers are old enough to understand that the road is still dangerous even if you can’t see a car, the rule needs to be about sidewalks instead of cars.
Until a writer has enough experience to understand that dialogue tags can become a crutch to avoid showing emotion, the rule needs to be about said instead of showing versus telling.
And like my toddlers will someday be able to step off the sidewalk without holding my hand because they’ll understand where the danger lies, any writer (yes, you!) can use dialogue tags once they understand where the danger lies.
The undead said
The danger of dialogue tags lies in dependance. Too many new authors – and, let’s be honest, not-so-new authors – depend on dialogue tags to create emotion and fall into the trap of telling instead of showing.
So, let’s take a look at the inevitable, desperate, and somewhat angry love confession from one of my unnamed WIPs. The only context needed to understand this scene is that the FMC is self-sacrificing.
📚 Creating Emotion with Dialogue Tags 📚
“My every moment is haunted by thoughts of leaving those mountains without you by my side!” he shouted, gesturing wildly with his arms. “Of walking without your voice to fill the silence,” he continued softer, sitting beside her. “Of sitting at this fire without you there,” he whispered. Noah finally looked at her. He took her hands in his and confessed, “I can fail to end this war and keep breathing. I cannot fail to protect you and survive it.”
It’s not bad! It does feel a little stilted. It’s almost like each fragment of dialogue is its own thought, disconnected from the last one. Leaning into what we’re talking about, it feels like someone is telling me a story, but not like I’m watching the story happen.
Let’s dissect it. We’ve got four dialogue tags: (1) shouted, (2) continued softer, (3) whispered, and (4) confessed. These tags are conveying four different emotions / stages of emotions: (1) anger, (2) deflated or dying anger, (3) fear, and (4) longing.
Now let’s go to the other extreme and remove dialogue tags completely. There’s only one character speaking, so for the sake of the example, I won’t even use said.
📚 Creating Emotion with Actions 📚
“My every moment is haunted by thoughts of leaving those mountains without you by my side!” His voice grew louder, and he threw out his arms as if trying to push the night away from them – away from her, she realized. “Of walking without your voice to fill the silence.” He stopped and sat suddenly, heavily, on the log beside her with a sigh. “Of sitting at this fire without you there.” Then, shoulders sagging, Noah finally looked at her. She could barely hear when he spoke again, and she would have believed she hadn’t been meant to hear had he not taken her hands in his before he began. “I can fail to end this war and keep breathing. I cannot fail to protect you and survive it.”
This feels better than before. Instead of four disconnected thoughts, the dialogue flows in and out of the action and connects to itself. I can guess at which emotions the speaker is feeling as he, and his listener, react to his words.
All Things in Moderation
Time for some brutal, and perhaps cruel, honesty. Because theory and practice are two different things, you should stick with "said" most of the time.
Knowing the dangers behind the “always and only use said” mentality will help any author use dialogue tags more responsibly. However, knowing the dangers exist and understanding the reality of those dangers is not the same thing.
With that in mind, the easiest way to break this rule is to follow it first. I only and always use said in my first drafts. By making a habit of depending on action instead of dialogue tags, I can get away with adding some non-said dialogue tags during editing.
But 'all things in moderation' goes both directions. If emotions are running high, naming each one with a dialogue tag is just clunky, but throwing a moan or whimper into a spicy scene always feels right.
Written for The Plottery
I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing.