When you’ve expressed interest in writing, especially on Pinterest, you get a lot of suggestions for writing in your feed—writing prompts, tips and tricks for overcoming writer’s block, and do’s and don’t’s. Writing prompts are fun (a friend of mine semi-recently wrote a blog post about How to Use a Story Prompt, which I think is important information, though I never had that misconception myself), and tips and tricks can be useful depending on who you are, but the do’s and don’t’s?
Don’t get me wrong, some of the lists are from legitimate sources and real writers who know what they’re talking about. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from my degrees (Creative Writing undergrad and an MA in English—trust me, that’s a lot of writing and reading of great writers), there are no rules. Not hard and fast ones, anyway. You can’t say “never do this” or “never do that.” For instance, one of the do’s and don’t’s lists I read said to never begin with your character waking up because “it’s boring.” Lies. If you opened a book and the first few lines said something about the character being awoken in the woods by a roaring bear when he distinctly remembers falling asleep in his room in the city, you would not be bored.
Now, I’ve seen at least a few of these lists headed up with the words “Said Is Dead.” As clever as that little rhyme is, it’s a lie, and if it’s true then we need to become necromancers and bring it back. They say that the word said get’s boring when used repeatedly for dialogue tags. You should substitute it with other words that convey the idea of speech. Use words like breathed, cried, retorted, murmured, etc. Now, has everyone had it pointed out to them that many of these words that are replacing said (a perfectly innocuous word that did nothing to deserve replacing) don’t actually have anything to do with speech? It’s really hard to breathe while speaking, and while you may intend it to mean that the character spoke so quietly it was like the sound of a breath (if that were the case, no one would hear him), what if your reader reads a sentence (“They’re right behind us,” he breathed) as if the dialogue tag were a separate action (“They’re right behind us,” he said and then breathed)? At which point they’d have stopped to think, “why is the author telling me that he’s breathing? Do I need to know that? Doesn’t breathing just sort of go on? Now I’m thinking about my own breathing. Man, I breathe really weirdly. Should I be breathing so shallowly? Now I feel faint.”
And while you’re so focused on finding different ways of saying said, you’re not focusing on making sure that your dialogue matches the idea you’re trying to convey with the tag. You want to instill in your reader a sense of urgency about the words she is speaking, so after a whole long paragraph of dialogue you tack on the words “she cried.” Do you see the problem?
Then, if you’re determined to use the word said but still find it too boring, you might transition into adverb overuse. I went through a phase where every single dialogue tag was accompanied by an adverb. Now, this didn’t really slow me down at all, but it does weaken writing as a whole when everything has an adverb. It’s not as punchy if it’s always like that.
And there-in lies the point. Over the course of my studies I’ve learned that dialogue tags mostly just fade into the background for readers. As much as you’re trying to make every bit of your writing interesting and engaging, most of your readers are only looking at the dialogue tag to know who’s speaking, and not usually how they said something because we get how things are said from the dialogue itself. Not only will constantly replacing said be a useless endeavor, but it will also rob your writing of variety by virtue of having too much variety.
Lest I eat my own words, this isn’t a rule, “you must always use said in your dialogue tags.” Rather, don’t think that you should never have the option of just using said and moving on. As my friend over at Literary Lunch said, “Words are to be owned. You must master them rather than letting them enslave you.” Master use of the word said, the father of all dialogue tags. And remember, it may seem tedious and repetitious to you when you’re writing it, but it won’t be the same for those who are reading it.
After all, I’ve never gotten through any novel and thought, “I really wish the author had stopped using the word said. It just got really annoying after a while.” Have you?