Tagging Dialogue

Recently, a scourge that occasionally plagues the writing community is flaring up again. It’s seductive, and infectious, and once it worms its way into a writer’s prose, it lames it, leaving it to lurch around on the page. For awhile, we thought it eradicated. But a few poorly researched articles popped up online, which got picked up by some seriously misguided souls, and together, they’re sowing confusion. Now, an outbreak of epidemic proportions looms.

The scourge’s name? “Said is Dead.”

Never heard of it? Good. Clearly you’re making solid life choices.

Every once in awhile, people decide they want to tear down one of the simplest and best practices of good writing: To use “said” when attributing dialogue, unless there is a pressing need for something stronger.

(We call these dialogue tags, and if you need a review of how they work, Gotham has a good article on that for you, here.)

Usually, I’d quote these folks directly, let them explain their hostility to a perfectly good verb in their own words. (This is about dialogue, after all.) But I’m not giving madness a platform. And besides, their reasons all boil down to, “Using ‘said’ almost all the time is boring.”

And you know what? They’re right. It can sometimes be boring to type “he said/she said” over and over. It can feel less like creativity and more like a chore when, instead of picking out fun verbs like “trilled” or “bellowed,” you’re deciding whether you need a “he said” after a quote, or whether you can leave the tag out entirely.

But as entertaining as it can be to type Back off! Beverly bleated, it is not as much fun to read. Because writing brain and reading brain are different.

As it cruises through a good story, your reading brain hits dialogue and registers “said,” but doesn’t actually read it. It’s a little like how when you’re driving, you register the white lines at the edge of the road but don’t stare at them, lest you drive into a ditch. Your reading brain looks at the words spoken, and who spoke them. “Said” is just there to guide it.

But swap in another verb and your reading brain realizes, “Something’s different!” and hits the brakes. A few lines of that, of characters “blubbering” and “blurting” their dialogue, and your reading brain is reaching for the Dramamine.

The “said is dead” folks can campaign all they want, they’re not changing the way our brains read. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. (Want proof? I’ve got a few examples for you, here.) You don’t need to mess with dialogue tags to amuse yourself while writing — you just need to get creative.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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