This rule lands on my list because it’s often treated like a black and white issue when it actually has shades of gray with shades of gray.
What it actually means
The definition is pretty basic: Don’t rely on dialogue tags to do anything other than identity who is speaking. That’s their purpose. We’ve all run into a page entirely of dialogue and it can be hard to tell who’s talking.
Said is generally an invisible word. It’s mostly fine, except when it isn’t.
I can feel your eyes crossing. More on that below…
Busting the Rule
This rule shows up even from professional level writers for the following reasons:
- Too much emphasis on dialogue tags.
Writers will collect lengthy lists of tags to refer to. So we end up with tags like ejaculated. That conjures up a very different image than is probably intended.
But moreover, these collections force the tag to do something else other than identifying the person talking. They try to explain how the dialogue was spoken.
Which leads to the second point…
- Not enough emphasis on description.
Even up to intermediate writer level, description is largely dismissed, with writers advising, “Keep it to a minimum.”
Except that it’s very hard to convey how words are spoken if there isn’t any description. Pushing it on a single word in a dialogue tag is a throwaway device. In most cases, the reader will eventually start noticing the goofy tags when they should be immersed in the writing.
What you can do
- Work on your description skills.
Yeah, I’m repeating this one because so many skill areas like adverbs and show not tell connect to this. Because once you change all the dialogue tags to said, you’ll realize that said is repetitive if that’s all there is.
So you veer to using action tags. But if you’re keeping description to a minimum, suddenly you’re showing a character is angry by having him wave his fist. And then you discover ten instances of characters looking at each other on one page (guilty).
Beefing up description is going to help here, a lot.
- Use common sense and don’t overthink it.
You’re writing along and it makes sense in the story to say “He whispered.” You probably won’t have too many of those, and as you work on your description skills, you’ll need fewer tags anyway.
- Don’t collect tags. Seriously. Just no.
You have better things to do with your time like writing your story that worry about dialogue tags.