Professors, authors, and editors say tagging dialogue with ‘said’ is all right because it is an invisible word. Dialogue tags merely there to tell you who said what. That may be true, but that has not been my experience. Instead of being invisible to me, any dialogue tag is a massive billboard screaming at me and yanking me out of the story.
The reason is this: a dialogue tag tells you who said what. Notice, I said, “It tells you who said what”—doesn’t show.
Let’s break down a piece of dialogue and dissect it:
“Let’s go to the store, John,” Anna said.
‘Said’ implies someone verbally spoke, but did you know having the dialogue tag is redundant? The quotation marks show me the same thing. So we don’t need to know something was said—we already see that.
As for who said it, ‘Anna said’ tells us Anna did, but what does it show you about Anna? What does it show you about her character? What is she doing right now? Where is she? You might think she’s at the front door in her family’s house with keys in hand and ready to go to Wal-Mart to pick up milk—impatient, average, young American woman. What if I told you Anna and John were actually assassins, and the ‘store’ she’s talking about is a weapons shop in town, and she’s going to pick up more ammo before heading out on a job? That paints a completely different picture, doesn’t it? She might be Russian now, and her real name could be Anastasia.
How could you write that same sentence and hint at her real meaning? Here’s a suggestion:
“Let’s go to the store, John.” Anna tossed him the keys, which he caught with practiced ease. She remembered he insisted her Russian driving habits would kill them sooner than any bullet, and on this rainy day Anna didn’t want to tempt fate. She wanted to go to the shop, pick up more ammo, then set out on the job.
Sure, it’s longer, but it also shows you more about both characters.
Not every conversation can afford to have lengthy sentences attached to it. Some conversations are short, choppy, and fast. If it’s between only two characters, stick with facial expressions:
“You’re late.” John frowned.
Anna arched a brow. “Car trouble.”
John’s eyes darkened, but Anna smiled.
“So what if there are three or more characters in a conversation? Then what?” Good question. If the conversation is natural and not quick-paced, the first option I demonstrated for you works with any number of characters. However, if the scene is an argument, and it is crucial for readers to understand whose opinion is whose, but nobody physically moves in the scene, this is the only time ‘said’ or any dialogue tag should be used. Consider the following:
“You have two options.” John placed his palms on the interrogation table and leaned toward their suspect. “Tell us—”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because you’ll die otherwise,” Anna said—not moving from her position against the wall with arms crossed.
“What about when there is supposed to be a pause in a sentence? Dialogue tags help with the pause.” That’s true, but before you rely on a tag, talk with your character to see if he physically does anything.
“Well, you see,” said John, “that’s not going to happen.”
“Well, you see…” A smile tugged at the corner of John’s lips. “That’s not going to happen.”
These little moments can be an eye-opener into the character.
Go back through your writing and see what tags you use. Try to take out the tags and replace them with body language. This gives your character a chance to stretch and grow. Of course, there is a need for balance. You don’t want to overuse the same body gesture. Sometimes a tag is best for that moment, but it should be your last resort. Consider investing in a book about body language because there is so much the body says without speaking.
Are dialogue tags absolutely forbidden? No, but we have an overabundant dependency on them. Much like helping verbs from the previous post, we should limit dialogue tags in our writing in order to grow in creativity and craft our writing voice. Once you’ve discovered how to work without dialogue tags, when you absolutely need a tag, you can use it.
One final note: please avoid using ‘ask’ or ‘question’ or even ‘exclaim’. Questions marks (?) and exclamation points (!) exist for a reason. If a sentence inside quotation marks end with one of these, it is repetitive to tag the dialogue as ‘asking’ or ‘exclaiming’.