What did you say?

I recently read a blog post by another author about the large variety of different ways to say “said” when writing fiction. There were quite a few on the list, and while most were correct, several were simply incorrect. I’m curious to know what you, as readers think, after reading the following. Do unique dialogue tags impress you? Amuse you? Annoy you?

What is the one dialogue tag that you’ve seen that has stopped you cold in a book?

The problem with all these choices is that writers become lazy in their writing. When you choose to use physical actions as dialogue tags, you are taking shortcuts that will often leave a reader jolted out of the story. Things aren’t always simple, and many readers, myself included are very visual when reading a book. A few examples of what I mean are.

*spat is the past participle of spit. You do not spit words. You can spit while you speak, but take a moment to spit, now say a word, then try to say that word while spitting.

*flount is the act of treating with contemptuous disregard. It is an action, not a way of speech.

*guffaw is the act of laughing in a loud and boisterous manner. Again, guffaw then try to speak. It is almost impossible because of the manner of the action.

*a smirk is a smile or smug expression, a physical action. You can say something WITH a smirk, but to smirk something is just not a physical possibility since it is a an action not a tone.

*dazzling is an action that happens when you look into a bright light or the act of impressing someone. Again, it is not a tone it is an action.

*scrooge – a type of person. We all know what it means, to be miserly, how can you speak miserly? You don’t speak actions, you speak in tones.

*onomatopoeiad – while this certainly could be a tag, it is so outrageous in its attempt to be “different” that if I read it in a manuscript I was considering, I would stop reading and reject immediately.

Writers need to be aware of the huge difference between physical acts and tones. To use these words improperly is simply incorrect and there are entirely too many other ways to display what you are trying to convey when using them. And if you take a poll, you might be surprised to find that readers are often annoyed by a writers attempt to use so many different words to replace “said.”


7 responses to “What did you say?

  1. A few google searches didn’t pull up the original list…any chance you want to credit the original post? 🙂


  2. Several best selling authors, who have spoken at writers conferences, have said that the only words that should be used are “say” and “said”.

  3. I try to use as few tags as possible. If a character’s voice is fully developed, the reader knows who is speaking simply by the speech pattern. Excessive tags are particularly evident when listening to an audio book. I love Robert B. Parker’s writing, but he uses so many “I said,” “he said,” “she said,” tags that I have a difficult time listening to any of his audio books. Drawing pictures with words is an art that writers of both fiction and non-fiction should develop. My interactive talk “Drawing Pictures With Words” has proved to be very beneficial and popular among writers groups.

  4. That is exactly what I’m talking about. This is one of the things I harp on regularly with my authors. I have actually stopped reading a few of my previously favorite authors because they insist on doing this.

    And sadly for them, they only think it is no longer a mistake. It still is and it is even more annoying. LOL

  5. I spit out a guffaw when I read this. Good post. I try my best to leave off dialogue tags unless it would be confusing as to whom is speaking. I do like to add color to the character by writing something like. He said “weird” and screwed up his face like he had just tasted a lemon. I love imagery and that kind of writing adds to a scene sometimes.

    • Imagery is the best kind of writing. When a writer takes the time to paint pictures with words instead of relying on TELLING us how the character feels, it is so much more enjoyable. I love to feel the tension and to be able to squeeze my eyes up when something horrible or funny happens. You don’t get to see writing like that very often. Even the established writers often rely on lazy tools to convey things, as opposed to pulling us into the story and letting us live it.

  6. My BIGGEST beef is with stories where someone is speaking, but instead of saying, “The sky is blue,” Dan said, the author writes, “The sky is blue,” Dan smiled.

    How can you SMILE a word? Yet I see this over and over again, in everything from short stories in glossy women’s magazines to dozens of novels I’ve read over the past few years. I guess the theory is, if you repeat a mistake often enough, it’s no longer a mistake.

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