“He Said, She Said,” I Screamed

Some of the worst writing advice I keep hearing is along the lines of “Don’t use any dialogue tags other than ‘said’.” I believe this originates from “Elmore Leonard Rules of Good (aka bland) Writing”. I fully intend to write an article addressing Elmore Leonard’s terrible rules, but the one about dialogue tags is the most egregious of the lot. To quote the rule exactly, “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” He also has a related one forbidding adverbs on “said,” but I’ll save that for my other rant.

In short, that’s some terrible advice and you should ignore it. In fact, any advice that declares such a strict and absolute rule is not merely arrogant and pretentious, but damaging as well.

Let’s consider the following example using only “said”. (Elmore Leonard also says not to use exclamation marks, so we’ll throw those out, too, just for kicks).

The sergeant panned his spyglass across the battlefield, then stopped abruptly. “Sir, we’ve got activity on the hills to the north.”
“Is it Bravo company?” the lieutenant said.
The sergeant shook his head. “I’m not sure, sir. They might—”
“We have incoming,” the corporal said from the lookout post. “Artillery barrage.”
The lieutenant turned to his men in the foxhole. “Everyone, take cover. We need—”
A shell exploded in the muddy trench before the lieutenant could finish speaking, throwing his body into the dugout foxhole in a shower of dirt and blood.
“Where’s the medic?” the corporal said, trying to help the fallen lieutenant. “Medic.”
“My leg,” the lieutenant said, clutching the ragged stumps where his leg had been. “My leg.”

Now, that’s some truly awful dialogue. To be far, it’s intentionally awful, but I’m trying to make a point. Force yourself to read through those lines again and take special note of the usages of “said.” If we are restricted to only using “said” as Elmore Leonard and others advise, and if we are further restricted from using adverbs and exclamation points, the results are flat, bland, and plodding prose. There is no life to the dialogue and no momentum to carry the surrounding action.

I’m not going to rewrite that example because the example was intentionally awful to make my point. Obviously, many of those pieces of dialogue could be improved in a variety of ways. Regardless, there are many dialogue tags besides “said” that can and should be used in writing. First and foremost is “asked.” In the example above, there are two places where “asked” is far more suitable than “said.” If we restrict ourselves to just “said,” then any questions made the dialogue ends up looking dumb.

But what about more colorful dialogue tags? I believe that having a variety of dialogue tags breathes life into the exchange and gives immediate and understandable context as to how a character is speaking. Such dialogue tags include (but are not limited to): “yelled,” “called,” “whispered,” “continued,” “screamed,” “hissed,” “interrupted,” “replied,” “snapped,” and so on. Yes, these are all perfectly fine,  despite what you might have heard. They make dialogue more interesting, varied, and compelling.

But the key to using these dialogue tags is to use them sparingly and judiciously. I think the reason for the advice “only use said” is to break writers from the habit of overusing colorful dialogue tags. I’ve been accused of overusing colorful dialogue tags. Fair enough. Some of this also comes down to a matter of taste, style, and opinion. But there are many times when you will find that a character needs to yell, scream, whisper, hiss, or snap back a pithy retort.

So, here’s a rule of thumb. Well, it’s not actually a rule. I hate writing rules. So, here’s a suggestion of thumb. Use either a descriptive wrapper (with no dialogue tag at all) or simply use said 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time use a colorful dialogue tag when it is clearly appropriate or demanded by the character’s mood, action, or context within the story. Also, use “asked” whenever it is appropriate, regardless of that suggestion.

Stay tuned for more Writing Tips!

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