“Drop the thesaurus!” he exhorted.

I ran across a horrifying article the other day: Writer Synonyms for the Word “Said”. Judging by the comments, a lot of wannabe writers believe it. This advice is, in a word, bad. Worse still, it’s everywhere.

When I first began writing, if I found a piece of advice that made at least a little sense, I’d try it. After all, what did I know? I was still developing my own style and, I’ll be honest, discovering if I had any talent whatsoever. As the years have passed, I’ve gotten a decent grasp of advice that works for me and what doesn’t. I also understand that tips I’ve discarded may prove beneficial to others, even lame stuff like, “Write what you know,” which has already been addressed here.

Some things just scream, “I’m a rank amateur.” Forcing alternatives for the word “said” is one of them. If you have to use a dialogue tag, most of the time “said” is your best option.

That’s not to say you should abuse it. Dialogue tags should only be used a) when it’s unclear who is speaking, or b) for emphasis (“Oh, my God, they’re coming!” Lisa screamed.)

The following sample is from my upcoming novel. This is what the bad advice would have you do:

This is it? This is the whole team?” Tim questioned.
What were you expecting, Bait?” Fish interrogated.
Tim didn’t know what he was expecting, except that he figured there would be more of them. “Five of us? I just guessed that the team would be bigger, that’s all,” he explained.
Fish chuckled. “Doing what we do as a big team would get us all killed.”
Truth,” Mutt agreed.
Orpheus entered the locker room and stated, “Gentlemen.”
Hey, Bossman, just in time. Bait here was questioning your decision to keep the team as small as it is. He thinks we should be a battalion,” Fish teased.
An increasing look of horror dawned on Tim’s face. “I did not! Uh, sir. I just, I…” he stammered.
Relax. He’s playing with you,” Sam chided.

That. Is. Awful. Here’s how it really reads:

This is it? This is the whole team?”
What were you expecting, Bait?”
Tim didn’t know what he was expecting, except that he figured there would be more of them. “Five of us? I just guessed that the team would be bigger, that’s all.”
Fish chuckled. “Doing what we do as a big team would get us all killed.”
Truth,” Mutt agreed.
Orpheus entered the locker room and said, “Gentlemen.”
Hey, Bossman, just in time. Bait here was questioning your decision to keep the team as small as it is. He thinks we should be a battalion.”
An increasing look of horror dawned on Tim’s face. “I did not! Uh, sir. I just, I…”
Relax. He’s playing with you,” Sam said.

That reads much more smoothly, and there shouldn’t be any question who is speaking at any given time. Truthfully, I shouldn’t have even used “agreed” up there.

I did a quick find and replace on this novel. It’s 95,000 words long, and I used the word “said” only 329 times. If I used tags other than “said” more than twenty times I’d be shocked.

You don’t need dialogue tags all the time; if you think your story needs a lot of tags, you have to take a long, hard look at whether your dialogue itself is doing its job. However, on the occasions when you do need to indicate who’s speaking, “said” is still your best friend.

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