He Said, She Said


As we’ve discussed previously, dialogue tags are things that bear careful examination, for a number of reasons. For one thing, with dialogue, less is more. For another, there are limits to how much to use consecutively (see “Tag, You’re Dialogue!”) . Also, we need to be careful about punctuation in tags (more on that in “Tag, You’re Dialogue, Punctuation Edition”).

Today, we’re going to look at what speaking verbs are used in tags, and how tags can become repetitive. Here’s a back-and-forth to consider:

“I believe you killed Logan,” Reyna said.

“That’s ridiculous!” Ray said.

“I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all,” Reyna said.

“He had neither the means nor the motive,” Gary said.

One problem is that we’re seeing “said” repeatedly, and in the same spot (at the end of the dialogue). Unfortunately, simply changing all speaking verbs from “said” to alternatives like “verbalize” is usually not the best solution. While most editors are looking to avoid repetition of “said” (well, any overuse of a word is a bad thing), swinging the other way is equally problematic.

“I believe you killed Logan,” Reyna opined.

“That’s ridiculous!” Ray expostulated.

“I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all,” Reyna retorted.

“He had neither the means nor the motive,” Gary interjected.

At one end you have plain, repetitive dialogue tags, and at the other end you have forced, flowery words that scream “This writer is trying too hard!” The best advice is to keep tags simple, and keep them lively. How? If there are only two characters speaking, delete tags on occasion if the reader can figure out who’s speaking, use alternative verbs (carefully, and when appropriate), or avoid them altogether by providing inner dialogue from the Point of View character, or move tags from the end of the dialogue to the front or center. Here’s one possible solution (using Gary as the POV character):

“I believe you killed Logan,” Reyna said.

Ray stared at her, stunned. “That’s ridiculous!”

“I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all,” she shot back.

Gary shook his head. Ray had been in a body cast at the time, and the two had been like brothers. “He had neither the means nor the motive.”

Don’t be repetitious, switch around the tag placement, and use alternatives to simple verbs such as “said,” “whispered,” “asked” and “shouted” only sparingly.

Now go forth, and write.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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