Writing Dialogue, Part Two: The Power of Said

In Part One of this series we discussed the ideal placement of the dialogue tag. Part Two begins analyzing the guts of the tag, specifically the use of said. I’ll quote Stephen King from his excellent book, On Writing:  “. . . while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” Now, I won’t be going into adverbs until Part Three, but the truth in the latter part of this quote deserves its own focus.

Anecdote time: When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had the class do a brainstorming project where we were to come up with as many words as possible to replace said in a dialogue tag, and were encouraged to use this variety in our writing. My fifth-grade mind thought that was a great idea; my grown-up writer/editor mind pictures The Scream painting by Edvard Munch. Variety is good in writing, but there is a time and a place for it.

Examples of decent variety in dialogue tags would be things like whispered, shouted, or mumbled. I list these because it can be difficult to use context or description to convey the style of speaking to the reader. However, it can be done, and can even bring more descriptive qualities to the scene in which the dialogue is taking place.

Consider this first example:

“We have to keep this a secret,” Sam whispered. “It could get us in trouble.”

There’s really nothing wrong with this quote, but we can revise it slightly:

Sam lowered his voice to a whisper. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Or:

Sam leaned closer to Julie’s ear. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Both of these revisions remove the tag altogether. The first one still states that the words were whispered, but it is used more like a noun rather than a verb. But verbs are great, you might say. They convey action! Indeed, but let’s use that verb action differently, such as in the last revision. Sam leaning in to Julie’s ear shows the reader what the characters are doing and can infer that the words are spoken in a whisper because he is so close. Readers are smart like that.

Let’s also look at some examples of how to do similar tricks with shouted and mumbled dialogue:

“I’m going crazy!” Dave shouted. –> Dave took a deep breath and tugged at his hair. “I’m going crazy!”

Not only do we see Dave showing his exasperation, but the exclamation point is what does the shouting for us.

“This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Emma mumbled. –> Looking away, Emma kept her voice low. “This is the worse idea I’ve ever heard.”

In this example, we see Emma’s reaction and are prepared for her tone of voice before she speaks.

If you find yourself wanting to use verbs other than said, consider whether you can use descriptive action to replace the tag. If your dialogue and the surrounding prose are strong enough, then said is all you need. In Part Three I’ll dive into adverbs in dialogue tags, and how to avoid the urge to use them.

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