Said is not dead!
I repeat, said is not dead!
I have to open this teaching corner with an apology to all of the students I spead this fake news to. I’m sorry.
In my defense, I was trying to teach my students about a writer’s voice. One way to fine-tune your voice is with distinct word choices. And also, the state test we had to give at the end of the year measured their vocabulary variety as part of their final score. If students used the same word repeatedly, they’d get dinged. I’ll refrain from comments about tests and teaching to them so as not to get on my soapbox and derail this lesson.
Purpose of Dialogue Tags
Back to said. Dialogue tags serve one purpose: to let the reader know who is speaking.
Example: “I’m so sorry for spreading misinformation,” Nicole said. “Nicole said” is the dialogue tag in case you’re not sure what I’m talking about. (And don’t worry if this is all new to you. Everybody starts somewhere.)
If a writer sticks to speaking words (said, asked) for their dialogue tags, then the tags will fade into the background for the reader, keeping their attention on the good stuff, the actual dialogue.
When a writer uses a tag other than said, the reader’s brain sends a signal that the reader needs to pay attention because there’s something different about this line of dialogue.
Other Dialogue Tags
What about dialogue tags, such as whispered? Can you use them? Of course, especially if it’s really important for the characters to be whispering. As with all writing “rules,” break them when you want to. If you know the rule and have a purpose in breaking it, go for it.
But most of the time, stick to said! Your readers (and your editor) will thank you.
This is also a great example of why a trained editor may be a better choice than your high school English teacher or the friend who’s a grammar whiz. As an editor, my job is to stand as a liaison between you and your reader. My purpose as a teacher was very different, and I just didn’t know all the expectations and “rules” of the book world.