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Monday, February 27, 2017

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use 'Said'"

You may have heard the writing rule that the only dialogue tag you should use is "said." And if not "said" then "asked." Sometimes even "stated" gets mentioned. In this post, I'll explain what that rule means, why it's in place, and when to break it.

What's the Rule?

In writing, the dialogue tag is the bit of text that tells the reader who spoke what dialogue:

"Are you hungry?" Jimmy asked.
"Please don't suggest we have raw fish," Oscar said.
"You only hated it because the first piece you had wasn't fresh," Jimmy insisted.
"Or because it tasted like gym socks," Oscar complained.

There are dozens if not hundreds of dialogue tags--blurted, groaned, sighed, cried, shouted, yelled, griped, moaned, and the list goes on.

But there is a rule in the writing world that we should pretty much only use "said" and "asked."

Why it's a Rule

From my experience, a lot of people who preach this rule don't actually go much into why it's a rule. There are a few reasons why "said" and "asked" are fantastic options most of the time, specifically for beginning, and maybe even intermediate writers.

"said" and "asked" are neutral dialogue tags, which means:

1. They are often "invisible" to the reader. The dialogue tags don't draw attention to themselves, they just function to help the reader identify who is speaking. Both "said" and "asked" have been used so much, most readers don't even notice them.

2. They force the work to happen in the dialogue. You may have heard the writing adage, "Show, don't tell." Alternative dialogue tags can act as a form of "telling," because it tells the reader how that dialogue is supposed to be read. So how do you show how that dialogue is supposed to be read? Well, when you work with neutral dialogue tags, often the dialogue itself is where you show how it's supposed to be read.

For example,

"I don't want to go to the store," Madison complained. 
"Uugh, I don't want to go to the store," Madison said. "All those stinky employees with their watchful eyes, moms with their crying babies, crummy old men panhandling outside--and with the holidays I'll probably be in there forever. And traffic will be a nightmare."

In the second example we "see" Madison complaining. The dialogue itself clues us into how it's being said. 

Sometimes adverbs get thrown in the works to try to spice up the "said" and "asked," but it functions the same way as "groaned," "complained," or "cried." For example,

"When are you going to clean this up?" Kelly said angrily.
"When the hell are you going to clean this crap up?" Kelly said.

Again, in the second example, the dialogue itself is doing the work. It shows us Kelly is angry. Now often you can show us she's angry in action too.

"When the hell are you going to clean this crap up?" Kelly said. She kicked Christina's box of dinnerware.

In a case like this, some will say you don't even need a dialogue tag, because you have what's called a "beat"--a bit of action that implies who is speaking.

"When the hell are you going to clean this crap up?" Kelly kicked Christina's box of dinnerware.

In either case, the dialogue and action show how to read and interpret her words.

Another reason people advise using "said" and "asked," is because if you use a lot of the alternative tags, things can get a little ridiculous, overwrought and sometimes even sing-songy.

"I don't want you to go," Addy cried.
"It'll be okay," Erin comforted.
"But you always say that, and it never is," Addy pointed out.
"It will be this time," Erin reassured.
"You don't even see it, do you?" Addy groaned.
"I'll be back before you know it," Erin promised.

It's too much.

With that said, there are legitimate reasons to use alternative dialogue tags, and it's completely okay to use alternative dialogue tags from time to time--but some of those times carry better reasons than others.

Why to Break it

1. Use alternative dialogue tags when the dialogue and context cannot imply the way that it's said. For example,

"That's great," Mick groaned.

"Great" is a word that conveys something good. "That's great," does not, in and of itself, convey the negative way it is being said. Sure, you can rewrite it:

"That sucks," Mick said.

But that changes the voice of the character and therefore his characterization, so there is a cost.

I've used this example before, but in my story, I have a character who tends to say negative things with a cheerful demeanor, or he says negative things when he's joking around. I need to clue the reader into that. When my character says, "Sarah's the worst," he isn't saying it in a pessimistic way. In fact, he's fascinated and attracted to how "bad" she is. So instead, I'd write:

"Sarah's the worst," Scott said cheerfully. 

Again, you can use the ol' adverbs in this way.

Now, I could try to write the scene in a way that provides context for how that line is said and put in a bit of action to imply it. For example, if I set up the scene so it's clear my characters are specifically looking for someone who has dreadful qualities, I could maybe convey how that dialogue is said with a beat.

"Sarah's the worst." Scott grinned.

But in some scenes you are not able to provide the context beforehand, so you cannot clue the reader into how the dialogue is said. Or in some instances, doing so slows the pacing way down because it's unimportant. In cases like that, it's okay to use an alternative dialogue tag.

"He bought me chocolate,"  she bragged.

"Let's have dinner," Irene said adamantly.

2. To keep the right pacing

I touched on this above, and I've touched on it elsewhere, but showing almost always takes longer than telling. Some things aren't important enough to let it slow down pacing. In cases like that, it might be fine to use an alternative dialogue tag.

"I wish I could have seen his face," she whined.

This can be particularly true for unimportant characters.

 "Give me the key," the goblin growled.

3. Specificity (and emphasis)

It's okay to use alternative dialogue tags every once in a while just for specificity. A story where no indication of how any of the lines are delivered or what any of the tones are can sometimes be as bad as one that describes every single line of dialogue. When used on occasion, it can emphasize certain emotions or lines.

"But what if the other beasts don't like him?" Hagrid howled.

"You'll be in my lair a long, long time," the dragon crooned.

 Again, there are ways to try to get around using alternative dialogue tags. You can tweak the dialogue itself, provide more context, or include a beat. But sometimes the alternative dialogue tag is what works, and it's okay to sprinkle them in, particularly for the right reasons, just don't overdue it.

No Dialogue Tags?

Some people argue that you should write in a way that requires no dialogue tags. The dialogue, character voices, and structure of the scene should imply who is saying what, making dialogue tags unnecessary (I'd still argue they can be used for rhythm, but that's a post for another day). There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this.

I once edited a story without one single dialogue tag, and I never once got confused about who was saying what, because the author handled the aspects I mentioned so well.

However, it was very noticeable to me that the author was making a point to use no dialogue tags, and so when I was reading, I found it distracting--because I'm so used to having something

But I didn't change anything.

I knew it was very intentional, and really, it was fine. And it was a short story, not a novel. It was just my own personal bias talking. I personally prefer stories with at least some dialogue tags. But writing without them can absolutely be done.

Related Posts

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't use Adjectives, Adverbs"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"
Writing Realistic and Complex Dialogue


  1. Another great post!
    I enjoyed all your examples of dialogue tags.

  2. I get it!

    Linda B

  3. "They force the work it happen in the dialogue."

    Um, in English, Doc?

  4. If the character is literally just groaning, should I just write "Jason groaned," instead of "Ughhhh," Jason said/groaned?

    You don't really say a groan, you just groan. So in that case would telling be better and easier to understand?

    1. That is a good point. In a situation like that, I feel that it is preferential. I would say it is up to the author.

  5. Hey, great post!
    So, on a kind of related note, is it generally considered okay to use the word "then" rather than a dialogue tag? For instance:
    'He was silent for a moment. Then: "dialogue"'
    I think I've seen it done before, most recently in an older book, but I guess I'm wondering exactly how acceptable it is from a professional editor's perspective.

    1. Hi, sorry for taking a few weeks to answer--been pretty sick! Thanks! It's atypical--I rarely see that. However, as an editor, I wouldn't consider it "wrong," just a stylistic choice the writer made. I would caution against overusing it . . . unless using it a lot fits the overall tone of the book.

    2. No worries, I hope you're feeling better! So could character voice have anything to do with it then? Thanks so much for getting back to me!

    3. Yes, usually the viewpoint character's voice will color the narration, and you could definitely use that to establish a character's voice. John Green sometimes does something similar in The Fault in Our Stars, if my memory serves me right.


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