Overusing “said” in dialogue tags

From Rick:

Before any of you stomp on me for the title of this post, I want to make it clear that I AM NOT ADVOCATING REPLACING “SAID” WITH OTHER WORDS as a matter of course.

The purpose of this post is to point out the unnecessary use of “said.” By this I mean that either it’s not necessary to use a dialogue tag at all, or it’s not necessary to specify that the character is speaking. This assumes you put quotation marks around spoken lines in your writing. If you don’t use quotation marks or some means to indicate a spoken line, then “said” may be required.

Before I give some examples to show this, let’s quickly review the purpose of a dialogue tag. The primary purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader who is speaking. Sometimes a tag is required to indicate that someone is speaking when it’s not otherwise evident.

Here are some examples to make my point about unnecessary “said.” After you read each line, read it again without the “and said” and see if you really need those two words.

>> When two armed men charged into the room, Jonathan stayed back and guarded the door. Ed came up behind them and said, “Drop your weapons!”

>> Looking away from the others, he glanced at her and said, “Do you have family here?”

>> Her heart pounded in her chest. Before she reached up to knock on the door, she looked down at her daughter and said, “I will always love you, Andrea.”

>> Alexander looked between the twins and said, “I want to congratulate you both.”

>> Ellen shot them a look of distaste and said, “Sorry… I’m not the person you think I am.”

>> Stephanie lifted her chin and said, “Take me to see my son.”

>> Michael shrugged and said, “Frankly, I don’t give a damn. So, go on with your pathetic lives and stay out of my way.”

>> Moments later, the waitress placed a shot glass on his table. Without hesitation, he tossed it back and said, “Bring me another, and start a tab.”

>> Then Cammie turned to the guard who was standing by the door and said, “And you are?”

>> The nurse moved the ultrasound probe across Barbara’s stomach and said, “Let’s see if we can hear the heartbeat.”

One novel I recently edited (and which inspired this post) used “and said” in a similar fashion 207 times over its 350 pages. Some of them might be necessary for clarity or emphasis, but if we could cut many or most of those (at two words each cut), we would eliminate the equivalent of one page of the novel (given about 340-350 words per page). While that might not seem like much of a cut in word count, that one simple revision would help streamline the narrative. Further, if we continue this process and look for other places to eliminate unnecessary wording, then we’ll start to see some significant improvements in the overall quality of the writing by tightening the manuscript.

I’ve edited enough manuscripts to be able to appreciate that any writer guilty of this simple unnecessary “and said” wording is also guilty of other unnecessary word and writing issues. Be sure you’re not one of them.

What about these examples?

>> “Shit,” Kyle muttered under his breath. (cut “under his breath” because “muttered” already conveys that)

>> “This calls for a toast,” Jason said as he held up a glass. (much better/stronger reworded: Jason raised his glass. “This calls for a toast.” This eliminates 4 words. Imagine the effect of being able to do several similar revisions per page over the course of 350 pages.

To reiterate: The primary purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader who is speaking and rarely that words are being spoken.

If it’s already clear who is speaking (as the previous examples all show), then the tag is usually superfluous. Yes, there are exceptions where the tag must tell how the words are delivered if it’s not possible to show that by the wording, physical actions, or facial expressions.

But before you attempt to add a TELLING word or phrase to the tag, ask yourself if there’s a way to SHOW it instead. Of course, sometimes expedience or the situation does require a TELL rather than a SHOW.

Consider these often-used tag words: explained, questioned, stated, replied. I maintain that most of the time it’s obvious that the speaker is explaining, questioning, stating, replying. If you feel that you have to tell the reader any of these, then either your writing isn’t as clear as it should be, or you don’t trust your reader to get it (and you risk insulting the reader’s intelligence).

I went back to my first novel, More Than Magick to see if I’d committed the “and said” sin. In its 118,000 words over 380 pages, I found only 33 cases. I looked at all of them and discovered about 9 or 10 that were not part of a dialogue tag and therefore needed to remain.

>> She calmed down and said she was hungry.

>> “Not after what I’ve done and said to him.”

Of the rest, some of them could be indeed eliminated. Here are two examples where “and said” is unnecessary:

>> I tilted my head up at the ghostly image I now saw shimmering above the fountain and said, “What the hell are you!” I pointed at it and turned to Jen-Varth. “You don’t see that?”

>> Arion noted the near panic on Vorell’s face and said, “I also felt an interruption.”

In my defense, I wrote this over twenty-five years ago, before I knew better.

In some places, the “and said” is required to indicate who is being spoken to:

>> I joined Enelle up on the wall and said to Adana, “Tell Morthen to try anger management therapy—and that we won’t be staying for dinner.”

Below are two examples where they are part of a tag and serve a purpose to explain how the line is spoken because the dialogue itself could not convey the delivery.

>> “Sir, I’d like to take your son to breakfast.” Jake turned his head at me and said with sickening politeness, “If that’s all right with Scott.”

>>Jake slowed to let me catch up and said in a throaty whisper, “Not a word until we’re out of the building.” He gave me a sideways glance. “Nice outfit.”

I also examined the combined manuscripts of two vampire novels (the ones I’m rewriting as one novel). Out of their total 183,000 words, I only used “and said” 10 times, and of those, at most 3 could be eliminated. The rest were not used as dialogue tags and a couple were needed for clarity.

>> “Drake chewed on his lips and said to Eli…” (Other people were around and talking and I needed to clarify who Drake was speaking to.)

Therefore, in your writing you should be conscious of four things regarding your dialogue:

(1) You don’t need a tag at all when it’s clear who is speaking unless it’s necessary to convey how the dialogue line is delivered when the line, the character’s actions, or the punctuation cannot convey that.

For example, if an exclamation mark can be used to show a character is shouting, you don’t need to say it in the tag.

>> “I expect you to obey me!” he shouted.

(2) You don’t need “said” when it’s clear that the character is speaking.

>> He shook his head. “I’d rather not,” he said.

>> She sighed. “Then give me a good reason,” she said.

(3) You don’t need “and said” as part of the character’s action when it’s clear the character is speaking.

>> He shook his head and said, “I’d rather not.”

>> She sighed then said, “Then give me a good reason.”

(4) Don’t replace “said” with an explanatory word unless it’s required for understanding. Do you need to do it in the example below?

>> “Well, the reason we can’t put a hot tub in our bathroom is that there’s not enough space unless we knock out a wall, and we can’t afford that right now,” Stephen explained.

It’s obvious this is an explanation, so it’s a case of TELLING when you’ve already SHOWN it to the reader with the speaker’s words. Depending on what came before this line, you might not need the tag at all if we already know who the speakers are and which one is talking.

As you revise and edit your manuscript, pay attention to your use of dialogue tags and make sure they’re necessary and doing only what they need to do and no more.

—Rick

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