dialogue tags and why I only use “said”

I recently joined Scribophile, and while mostly I’m finding the information and discussions on the site useful and spot-on, I keep encountering one idea I wholeheartedly disagree with. It’s about dialogue, and how to tag it.

For example, typically I would write:

“I don’t feel like cleaning the kitchen,” Karen said.

When I was a young, green writer I would often write things like:

“I don’t feel like cleaning the kitchen,” Karen whined.

or

“I don’t feel like cleaning the kitchen,” Karen declared.

But I don’t do that anymore. Why? For the same reason I don’t use adverbs anymore. To me, descriptive dialogue tags are crutches. They feel juvenile and clunky.

Of course, this is a stylistic choice. There is nothing linguistically or grammatically wrong with writing, “I believe it’s going to rain today,” Joe opined.

But here’s the thing. If you’re writing well, dialogue tags are redundant. If you’ve set your stage correctly, you know a character is whining when they don’t want to clean the kitchen, or someone is offering an opinion when they say it’s going to rain. You don’t need to whack the reader over the head with it.

To me, this falls into the category of overwriting.

In my writing, dialogue tags serve one purpose and one purpose only. And that is to tag the dialogue, so we know who’s talking.

When used properly, dialogue tags disappear. Just like punctuation and paragraph structure and all the other mechanical aspects of writing, they are markers with the sole purpose of helping your reader navigate your story. If you are consistent, and use only “said,”* your reader can flow through your work without the constant interruption of your unnecessary attempts to “spice up” something that’s supposed to fade into the background.

I am finding whole articles these days on how to use dialogue tags “creatively,” and I think it’s poor advice.

Try this. Walk over to your bookshelf and pick up the best book you’ve read in recent memory. I’m talking the kind of book you finish and close, then just sit there staring into the middle distance for a good several minutes savoring that, “Wow that was a good book” feeling.

Open a book of that quality and flip through until you find some dialogue. Survey the tags. What do you see? I’m guessing a whole lot of “said.”

*full disclosure: I do sometimes use “asked,” “replied,” and “agreed”

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