He Said, She Said

What did you say? I said, he said, she said. The most over-used phrase in books! But Tracy Tappan is here to show us a few alternatives that will spiff up your writing.

[W]hat is the rule for using ‘said’ as a dialogue tag in fiction writing? This is a debate I’ve read frequently on author chat boards, lately.

Many authors have heard that the word ‘said’ is all but invisible—it merely confirms who is talking in a scene, and that’s it. Yes, ‘said’ can be a quick, easy way to designate who’s speaking, but, no, using it too much can definitely be a visual annoyance.

So how much is too much? What is the rule for using ‘said’ in fiction writing?

The good news—or bad news—is that there isn’t a hard and fast rule. As with just about anything in writing, the answer is: it depends. Starting from the standpoint that ‘said’ isn’t a freebie word that can be used with invisible abandon, a good general rule would be to enrich your writing using tags other than ‘said’ as often as possible. Dialogue must always fit your scene overall, of course, and there are guidelines to help you navigate the best choice.

Consider emotion, everyday actions, and characterization when deciding how to write who said what.

First, emotion: What is the emotion being conveyed in the scene? Anger, joy, sadness, sensuality—each is depicted not only by what is being said (the telling), but by how the words are spoken (the showing).

If two characters are involved in an angry back-and-forth argument, then a staccato burst of dialogue—where all tags are completely dropped—can be a great way to convey this.”

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