The ‘said’ tag; when, where and my views

In my last post, I included a section on removing the ‘said’ tags from my work.  Ruzkin replied with “what’s wrong with ‘said’?”

Up until a month ago, I would have agreed that there’s nothing wrong with that useful little utility tag.  But then I received a critique from an author, Jeanine Berry, who advised me to remove the tag as much as possible.  This is what she told me:

This advice isn’t my own, actually, I got it from another writer who has since gone on to be published in NY, but I’ve tried it in my own writing and like how it works.

Basically, the idea is that “said” is usually a wasted word. And while writers will argue that the reader reads over “said” as if it were invisible, she felt it often slowed things down and served as an easy substitute for something better.

I remained unconvinced until she demonstrated with a review of some text from my novel.  I’ve cut and pasted it here.  It won’t make any sense, because the phrases aren’t connected.  My version in blue, the revised version in red.  Don’t tell me about the passive voice etc; this is first draft stuff, so I really don’t care.  Yet.

“No.” said Camar.  “I have a feeling their major food source has been cut off.”

“No.” Camar shrugged. “I have a feeling their major food source has been cut off.”

I had to admit, it was more active.

“That one is Van,” he said, pointing to the slender grey Vashti.  “He’s the eldest of the three.”

“That one is Van.”  He pointed to the slender grey Vashti.  “He’s the eldest of the three.”

Iffy on this one, because it reads like Camar points, then speaks.  This tag will probably stay as is.

“I could call for a stretcher,” said Giessler, “because I’m damn-well not going to carry you.”

Giessler chuckled.  “I could call for a stretcher, because I’m damn-well not going to carry you.”

This one is much improved.

“All right,” said Giessler, looking amused. “I’ll have a medic standing by to pick up the pieces when they’re done.”

All right.”  Giessler looked amused.  “I’ll have a medic standing by to pick up the pieces when they’re done.”

And this one.

I was convinced.  I still think the said tag has a place, as indicated in the previous post, but I also can see the benefits of removing it.  If I have to perform a complicated linguistic feat to remove it, it stays; otherwise I replace it with an action, or in a lot of cases, just leave it out altogether.

Okay, your turn.  Are you convinced by the examples?  Do you think that removing ‘said’ improves the text, or not?  How much do you use the tag in your own writing?  Have at it in the comments, I want to hear your views!

27 thoughts on “The ‘said’ tag; when, where and my views

  1. Pingback: In the Blogosphere: 12/6-1/7 « My Daytime Drama

  2. Pingback: The ’said’ tag, part 2: the literature review « Not Enough Words

  3. Hope you don’t mind a stranger/newbie hopping in on the conversation. :)

    When I read something, and there is a bit of dialogue followed by “he said”, my brain does a bit of a pause. It’s sort of a rhythm thing. So I find that if it’s obvious who’s talking (2-person conversation) and especially if the conversation is quick or tense, using no speaker tags at all for several lines is the best way to go. It keeps the focus on the words being spoken, and the pace picks up and changes the feel of the conversation. Example:

    “I don’t think you’re getting the point,” she said.
    He shrugged. “Maybe not. Or maybe it’s just you.”
    “I think you’re full of crap.” She crossed her arms. “Or is it just that you don’t care?”

    “I don’t think you’re getting the point.”
    “Maybe not. Or maybe it’s just you.”
    “I think you’re full of crap.” She crossed her arms. “Or is it just that you don’t care?”

    In v.2 the arm-crossing also serves to put a beat between her two comments, making it feel like she paused before saying the second sentence. And this also serves as a gentle reminder of who’s saying what (assuming that the scene/characters are already established.)

    This is also a bit related to your overall writing style, and can tie in with genre etc. In my own style, I try to use speaker tags sparingly, and as a result I think I overuse the action-tag sometimes.

    Pick your poison, I suppose. :)

    • Not at all Iaine, welcome to the discussion! I agree, dialogue tags don’t need to be used for every line of dialogue. It does come down to style, and I guess it works differently for everyone.

  4. I do tend to remove the said tag, because I like tightening up the connection between a character’s actions and dialogue. In other words, I try to render conversations as close to their real-life counterparts as possible; when you listen to someone speak, you usually glean just as much from their body language as from what they actually say.

    However, since writing is never that simple and dialogue has to be stylized to a certain extent to work in a story, I definitely consider the said tag to be a necessary tool. Just one that may be overused.

  5. Don’t be scared of said! Sure, there’s a case for removing it and replacing it in places, but I’ve also heard very convincing advice that there’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of it.

    That is rather than reading through coughs, sniffs, posings and such, sometimes a quickly reading scene just calls for the place marker of ‘said’. People read over it, while getting the most important fact; whose talking.

    As long as it READS ok, then surely that’s all that matters.

  6. Thanks for the specific examples. They make the point well.

    Also, I just wanted to say that I like the header on your blog.

  7. I usually try to find a better word than said if it’s not just a statement. Asked, stated, wondered, mumbled, etc.
    I think it’s fine to drop the tag altogether, but if there’s more than two dialogs without a reference, then I get confused. I also like to add some body movements or facial expressions of the speakers.

    “What are you saying,” he frowned.
    “‘Said tags’ don’t work,” she shrugged.
    Writer A shook his head. “Then I guess I don’t get it.”
    “Maybe you never will,” she sniffed, turning away.

    That was probably a little much. But I do like Nick’s comment, everything should be in balance.

  8. Have nothing to add to the “said don’t said” debate that the others haven’t already covered. If your beta found it was jarring or overused in the context of your story; you are right to edit. Otherwise, it’s a matter of taste.

    Now you did accidentally stumble upon something I’ve heard before and drives me bonkers trying to figure it out.

    “That one is Van.” He pointed to the slender grey Vashti. “He’s the eldest of the three.”

    Iffy on this one, because it reads like Camar points, then speaks. This tag will probably stay as is.

    Um, HOW does it do that? He has a spoken line then the action is given and then more speaking. I see this comment made in writing advice books, and they act like each sentence is a separate unit in the way the reader reads it and it’s at super-slow-mo.

    While reading I have never thought of the subject standing still with mouth, shut arms straight at their sides. Mouth opens. “That one is Van.” Mouth shuts so he can point. Arm comes down to side. Mouth opens. “He’s the eldest of the three.”

    People don’t move that way! (And if they do in your work, you should be taking extra steps to point that out because it’s not normal.) I always picture normal human body language when I read, so am I some kind of freak for expecting other people to do that same?

    • It’s the way it’s written. If you whack a full stop in there, the reader pauses, which disconnects the speech and action. You said it yourself; “he has a spoken line and then the action is given. Written that way, it is two separate things. And since the reader doesn’t actually get to the action until after they read the dialogue, then yes, they stand there, hands at the side. By using ‘he said’ in this case, you connect the speech and action.

      • Sorry, but I still can’t see the issue which is caused by a period? He moves and talks, like everybody else. I didn’t see the marionette action you think MUST be there because of a period.

        I see punctuation as a way to give rhythm to a string of words. The string of words form the movie in my mind complete with audio and visual. I do not understand this issue, so my default reaction is to blow a raspberry at it as something someone got freaked out about once and it has now sunk fangs into all writers.

        Whatever rhythm of words you think is best is your decision; and if the period is so bad this is a grammatically correct solution without “said”: “That one is Van,” he pointed to the slender grey Vashti.

        But I still think it’s a non-issue because of what happens in my brain when I read. So I’m asking: am I a freaky reader (I already know I have a mild dyslexia and wasn’t taught phonics) and everyone else in the world sees stop signs with periods and that’s their images when processing a novel? Assuming that we’re all writers here, and doing a shitload of reading, this should be easy to get a sampling out of. Nothing with my brain process surprises me any more, so no worries about hurting my feelings.

        Reading in this sense means for pleasure, not analyzing something written to see how it is constructed. I’m assuming that your final product is to be read for pleasure ;), and sorry for derailing the comments.

      • ummm….hmmm…good dialogue on this. in my mind, though, period means stop. Stop. I have to say i’m with merrilee on this one.

        i’m not an elementary teacher, but many teachers instruct their students to STOP at a period. so many of us are trained thus — and the jerky motions commence in our heads, like marionette dolls on crack, when the periods are mis-placed or mis-used.

        my two cents, anyway :D

      • Not at all! Discussion is what it’s all about! I’m going to move this to a post, because I think it needs to be explored more. Stay tuned, and hope you drop in to have your say.

  9. I agree. I try not to use any tag, and rather just the action, although if I want to slow down a scene slightly, then I will add it. Or if I want to make a particular point.

    Excellent post!

  10. Here’s what I’ve concluded after changing my opinion on the matter several times.

    -Most writing communities have writers who avoid the word ‘said’; I find they usually change their opinion on that notion somewhere down the line.

    -If you try and banish the word ‘said’, replacing nearly all instances of it with actions, it comes off as amateurish.

    -If any talking scenes, even brief ones, have no action, you get what’s called ‘talking head syndrome’.

    -When specifying an action, it’s important to watch for redundancy because sometimes the words already convey the action(s) on their own.

    -If you compare isolated sentences that use the word ‘said’ to those same statements with actions, Then yes: Out of context, the actions’ll always look better. But sometimes less is more.

    -If characters perform actions during their statements too often, it clutters up the flow of conversation and can even be jarring to the reader.

    Character A glanced at the clock. “—–.”
    “—–.” Character B rapped his fingers against the surface of his notebook. “—–.”
    Character C laughed, brushing aside her hair. “—–.”

    -It can quickly become obvious to the reader that the writer is decidedly ‘anti-said’.

    At this point, I believe editors and agents look for writers that can strike that delicate balance between actions, untagged dialogue, and the word ‘said’.

    Sometimes, the most professional thing to do is keep it simple and use the plain ol’ boring word ‘said’. It really is an invisible word that (1) indicates to the reader who is talking when it would otherwise be confusing, (2) speeds through dialogue with almost no momentum loss, and (3) leaves a little bit to the reader’s imagination.

    • At this point, I believe editors and agents look for writers that can strike that delicate balance between actions, untagged dialogue, and the word ’said’.

      Well ‘said’ :)

  11. I’m with you. It depends upon the sentence & the situation. As you’ve shown, it improves some, confuses some. Seems to be something important to be aware of, but not an all or nothing sort of tip :)

  12. Even so. Sometimes you have an extended dialogue between two or three characters and you need to remind people who is saying what, and there’s no quick action to insert that will do the job. Nobody pointing, chuckling, or checking their watch. Therefore, ‘said’. Other times it’s useful to emphasize a monotone.

    I agree that it shouldn’t be used if there’s an alternative way to remove it altogether – I mean, you read that little excerpt I posted just yesterday, and there wasn’t a single speech declarative. Even so, it isn’t a dead word.

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