How do I Dialogue? The Strife of the "Said" Tag

Over on my tumblr, a wonderful anonymous reader/writer asked me:

Hi! :) I have some problem when writing, not in dialogues, those are the easiest part for me, but like after the dialogues, I always feel like I'm repeating the entence "she said" or "he said" wayyy too many freaking times, and it bothers me a lot. How do I kinda replace the word "say" and not make it appear 500 times in my 1000 word story? xD Thanks! And I cant wait for your novel to release :D


Hello my dear! Ohhh, dialogue tags. What an important question!!

Two things: the first is, check out this cool page about other words you can use for “said.” Remember that you probably want to convey action and emotion with your dialogue. The only thing “said” tells us is, literally, that someone… well, said something: which, mind you, is important!

But, other words – that more directly describe the way something is being said – can often be super helpful, and that’s where the link above can be very nifty.

The second thing: remember that you don’t always need dialogue tags. The goal with good dialogue is to have everyone communicate – as we all do in real life – with different cadences, with a voice all their own. So making sure your characters have their own rhythms and tendencies when speaking can help us as readers know who’s talking without necessarily having to be told. Relatedly, it’s fun to let readers see what characters are doing while they’re talking, and this can provide a lot of great alternatives to “said.”


Take this bit of dialogue, for example, from this delightful scene between true loves Emma Swan and Regina Mills in Once Upon a Time:

 

Regina Mills from Once Upon a Time looks up from her desk, hand delicately under her chin, with hopeful eyes, asking Emma Swan, "Is that a root beer?" Gif from https://68.media.tumblr.com/4cb1e6a038cbed831a81e00745b19d0f/tumblr_nkciynSO561sfomgxo5_250.gif

“How do you feel about kale salad?” Emma asks.

“Like someone found some place other than Granny’s for take-out,” Regina answers.

“I’m fine with her grilled cheese, but I know it gets to you,” Emma says.

“You eat like a child. Is that a root beer?” Regina asks.

“Two! I got you one. Thought you could use a break,” Emma says triumphantly.


Okay. Awesome. My heart is melted like that grilled cheese that Emma didn’t get because she knows it hurts Regina’s stomach be still my fangirl heart.

But, still. As written, it doesn’t convey everything that went on between them in that scene, does it? So, lets try it without once using “said”/”says” or synonyms for it.

“How do you feel about kale salad?”

Regina doesn’t bother looking up, either at the salad or at the woman who’d placed it there. “Like someone found some place other than Granny’s for take-out.”

Emma ignores her distant, distracted quip as she struggles to crack open the bottles she brought with her.

“I’m fine with her grilled cheese, but I know it gets to you.”

Regina scoffs with soft eyes and finally glances up. “You eat like a child.”

She pauses, then, and nearly gasps, her mask of disinterest finally gone. “Is that a root beer?”

“Two!” Emma quirks a small grin, holding up one bottle in each hand like she’s Henry, trying to be casual while proudly presenting his science fair project. “I got you one. Thought you could use a break.”

You see what I mean?

More melty-grilled cheese for Emma and warm fuzzy someone-notices-what-I-need feels for Regina, and more overall feels for us.

Sometimes, we need those actions, those facial expressions. And, it does two things at once: injects deeper forms of communication into the scene, and eliminates that pesky “said” repetition.

Remember, most of communication is held within the unspoken: don’t be afraid to put that in your writing!!

Have a great time, dear writer: you got this :)

And if you've got any more dialogue tips, feel free to toss them below here!