Dialog Tags: Two Schools of Thought

There are two schools of thought that I can gather from my research — those that encourage the use of SAID alternatives and those that don't. I am speaking of tagging dialog, of course.

The published professional will often argue that all a writer needs is the word SAID when tagging dialog. Stephen King is one such writer. The idea behind this is twofold: one, SAID is invisible to the reader, allowing the reader to focus on the dialog itself. Two, dialog and other discription around the dialog should be strong enough so that the reader automatically knows how the dialog was said.

Though their reasoning is sound, I do not agree with the entire arguement. It's basically a stereotype. Not all readers skim over SAID, ignoring its overuse. I am one of those. I can't stand seeing SAID used too many times when something else would have worked better.

My mother, on the other hand, would probably not notice. She reads a lot more than I do, and so maybe the arguement is for people like her. However, she would probably ignore most of the technicalities of writing. My mother and I are on opposite sides of the spectrum.

I also do not agree that description around the dialog or the dialog itself will make it clear how it was said. Here's an example from the edited version of Masquerade:

Jacob, my younger brother, sat up from his crouched position. His face was smeared with dirt, and his clothes were stained as mine probably were. He grabbed his canteen from beside him, sipping the sun warmed water.  He ran the end of his sleeve over his wet lips and tossed the canteen aside. "Empty," he breathed. "I hope we can go swimming soon."

The last line could have been written:

"Empty," he said. "I hope we can go swimming soon."

Is there a difference between simply saying something and breathing something? Yes, one uses the vocal cords and one does not. To breathe a word means to say it softly like a mutter, or under one's breath, so to speak — without vibrating the vocal cords.

In my opinion, "breathed" is a more specific dialog tag. Does it get in the way and confuse the reader? I don't think so. I think it clarifies what's going on. There's plenty of description in that paragraph. There's enough to clue the reader in how the word was said, but I can think of multiple ways it could have been said based upon that description. He could have said it normally. He could have been irritated that the water was gone. Or, he could have breathed the word, tired from the work in the fields, a detail that we don't learn for a couple of paragraphs.

Perhaps the reader is thinking that Jacob is exhausted, out of breath in the sun. This tag clarifies that thought. If that word makes you dislike the story, causing you to pause and break your train of thought, perhaps the story isn't for you. Perhaps you need a book that uses SAID over anything else.

I can not remember if I have specifically put a book down because of the use of SAID, but I have gotten irritated that the author is being lazy and won't help me along the way, including well chosen tags to describe how certain lines of dialog are said. A well chosen tag will compliment the description.

I will further describe dialog tags in my next post.

The End

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