If Walls Could Talk: Said Tags

M.H. Norris

Often times, when reading newer authors’ writing, I find one common problem. Their dialogue is accompanied by a said tag.

What are said tags? Why are they so bad?

“Said tags are when you leave a character’s name and ‘said’ at the end of dialogue,” Mary Helen said.

As I said above, tags are when they are put after dialogue, before dialogue, or in the middle to break it up.

Don’t think you can get away with responded, whispered, acknowledged, pointed out, asked, requested, sighed (though occasionally I’m guilty of that one, to James’ chagrin) or things like that just because they aren’t “said.” They’re worse. No matter what you tell yourself, they’re worse. No matter what author uses them, they’re worse.

Delete them all now and your book will be stronger for it.

This is a common problems writers face. It can be done. In fact, every so often, you need said tags or one of their friends to help you in a scene with multiple characters.

But that doesn’t excuse you from going “he said” “she said” every other piece of dialogue. I have read articles that argue against substitute tags and say that “said” will suffice, and while they might have a point, I don’t think any of them are necessary.

After all, instead of using a said tag, you can use that space to do one of several things.

Description

What’s going on in the scene? What is your character observing? Use the five senses and take time to paint us a picture.

Also, keep in mind that both of these will help you build up that word count (something to keep in mind in a few months when NaNoWriMo comes around again).

Not only that, but these things can help you build-up your story and create the world your characters inhabit.

Like I said earlier, go back through your latest piece and circle every time you used the word “said.” Then go and see if you substituted it for something “creative.” Then go and see if you can add an insight from the POV character or some description in its place (hint: you can). Make that change.

Doing that, you’ll find your story is much stronger.

Here, let me give you an example. I got permission to use this piece.

“We have been watching you.” The man suddenly said ending the stare down.

“No kidding” Harry said with sarcasm in his voice. It hadn’t been hard for him to spot them.

“You are very observant, but I don’t think you were seeing us with your eyes. (2)” The man responded.

“How else could I see you?” Harry responded curiously.

“That is one of many things we have to teach you.”

There are several things wrong, here. Let’s focus on the said tags.  Instead of giving us a picture of the person—said is used as a crutch. Even with description, we see the said tag used here.

We see the two main problems with said tags. First, it tells us rather than shows. We’re told something is said “suddenly,” we’re told Harry is sarcastic, we’re told Harry is either curious or he spoke oddly (context is unclear). It’s already clear from the context that Harry is sarcastic, and being told he’s speaking “curiously” doesn’t add anything. A sudden burst of speech could be indicated by leaving the preceding paragraph off, unfinished, with a dash.

Second, the telling doesn’t advance character, story, or setting. We don’t learn anything about the characters. We don’t know anything more about the story. We don’t know where they are, or how the characters are placed in the world. It gives the excerpt an empty, displaced quality.

Additionally, I feel like said tags and substitute tags bog down your story, giving them weight they don’t need. The excerpt would be much quicker, and easier to read without the tags.

Let’s take a look at one of my older pieces and see the difference.

“What will help is to know where Zack and Aaron were taken.” Angie looked at the plans. “There’s two stories above ground and three below. That’s a lot of ground.”

“Which is why we had a team of 40 people make their way through it. Divide that building into half two teams of 20 four to each half of each floor. Supposed to be a quick in and out.”

Angie looked up to see Nathan Adams standing in the doorway of the room, hands in his pockets and a rifle strapped across his back.

He brought his hand to his head and grabbed the earpiece in his ear, slipping it into his pocket before walking over to the group. Turning the chair across from Angie around, he sat down and held out his hand. “So you’re the new girl that crashed the party. Nathan Adams.”

“Angie Thompson.” She shook his hand. “And you’re the one who has managed to lie to the world.”

“That’s one way to word it.”

“How do you word it to sleep at night?”

“Not telling the whole truth.”

While the dialogue helped to set the mood the lack of said tags helped the flow a bit more. The closest I came was perhaps mentioning them shaking their hands, something to break up that dialogue, but even then it helps to move along the story.

Never put anything in your story that doesn’t help it move along. That’s a lesson I’m still learning myself.

Do not use said tags after every piece of dialogue.

From now on, if you do, you will get the mental picture of me giving you the death glare.