Whether you follow the advice or not, you’ve probably heard writers say that the only dialogue tag you should use is said – possibly with a few other plain ones sprinkled in, like asked or replied. The thinking is that the reader’s eye passes over those words without seeing them and thus remains fully engrossed in the story. I’ve heard it explained that dialogue tags should be like door hinges – functional, but you never look at them.
Of course, when I hear that, I always think: But door hinges can be so pretty!
Recently, I started reading aloud Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my class, and one of the first things that struck me was how often the word said was used. I was surprised – because I had already read this book (silently) on my Kindle, and I never noticed. Which, I suppose, goes to show that the door hinge thinking is correct: My eyes passed over the word without seeing it.
However, when I read the book aloud, I definitely heard it! Said. Said. Said. Said. Wonder is an amazing book – and my students are loving it – but I was bugged enough by the repetition of the word said to tally up the dialogue tags in one of the chapters.
Said – 30
Other tag – 19 (of those, 10 were answered)
No tag – 5
It could be that this overuse of said and answered was deliberate. It’s part of Auggie’s voice, and when I scanned ahead, I saw that other narrators in the book did not use said quite so often. Nevertheless, I rarely saw anything besides said or answered.
I decided to check out a chapter of my own forthcoming MG book to compare styles.
Said – 5
Other tag – 7
No tag – 30
Apparently, I prefer to avoid the dialogue tag altogether by using narration to make it plain who’s speaking. (Well, I was aware that I did that. I just didn’t know how often!)
Again, I want to reiterate that Wonder is an incredible book, very much worth reading. I’m not sure if I would choose to read it aloud again, though.
While we're at it, shall we debate dialogue vs dialog?