‘Said’ vs. Synonyms: How to use both as dialogue tags

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is based on the author’s personal experience of writing fiction and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

Heated debate rampages across the online writing community as to which dialogue tag is morally, ethically, and mechanically correct to use: ‘said’ or one of its many synonyms. Use all the alternatives! Never deviate from ‘said!’ A great way to get (angry, rageful) interaction on Twitter is to ask the writing community which to use.

We average writers get caught in the middle. We just want to know the answer so we can keep writing, not start a flame war between influencer titans. We get mixed results, however, because the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In the mix of both.

Let’s talk about what that means.

Synonym Variation

If you happen to wander around writing Pinterest, or even hang out within an online writer’s group, you’ll likely come across some neat infographic with a list of synonyms for ‘said.’ Such as below:

"Said is dead ...but how did they say it? Normally? stated spoke remarked reported added As a question? asked inquired requested begged As an answer? answered replied responded acknowledged explained Happily? rejoiced laughed joked giggled sang cheered smirked marveled chimed beamed Loudly? shouted belted yelled screamed exclaimed boomed called Full of worry? quaked trembled stammered stuttered gulped Angrily? demanded hissed fumed thundered snapped sneered barked grunted roared bellowed Bossily? commanded ordered dictated insisted Sadly? cried sobbed groaned bawled whined Quietly? mumbled muttered whispered Silently? thought wondered pondered

These can be useful tools, but in special circumstances, not all the time. In fact, alternatives for ‘said’ are a great way to avoid appending too many adverbs onto your dialogue tags when you need to express more with them.

However, the attitude of such infographic platitudes trends toward that caption at the top of this one: said is dead. As a result, many writers take this to mean they should use as much variation on ‘said’ as possible.

The ‘Said’ School of Thought

Many a criticism of amateur writing comes with a complaint of too much variation in dialogue tags. It’s distracting! they say. Takes me out of the story! they add.

Those critics refer to writing that takes those lists of synonyms for ‘said,’ as above, and applies all of them. But in reaction to this criticism, writers often swing hard in the exact opposite direction, cutting out every alternative and leaving only ‘said.’ Mainly in an effort to avoid distracting the reader.

Which, yeah, that’s mostly fine. Exclusive use of ‘said’ probably does serve reader immersion. But then that leaves writers with another issue: describing volume and tone, sometimes in hurry. Because how do you express the difference between an exclamation point for simple emphatic emphasis and an exclamation point for screaming? With a whole lot of extra words, that’s how. When you could just use an (appropriate) synonym.

A Mix of Both

I maintain that good writing incorporates a mix of both ‘said’ and its synonyms. Rarely, at least these days, will you see a story with just one or the other. However, whichever tool you choose to use for a given moment in your writing should align with your intent.

Yes, ‘said’ helps bury the fact that this story comes from words written on a page, allowing the reader to sink into the narrative. As such, for the most part, dialogue tags should stick with ‘said.’ Doing so allows for immediate, impactful punch when the tag changes to anything else. This makes the reader sit up and pay attention because this synonym shows that this moment is important.

This does not mean that all synonyms for ‘said’ can (or should) come into play as alternatives. (See the famously awkward use of ‘ejaculate’ in Sherlock Holmes.) As an example, the infographic above lists ‘rejoiced’ as a synonym for ‘said.’ I would argue that point, as when I imagine a sentence a character has just spoken, I don’t see how that character could have ‘rejoiced’ those words. Same goes for ‘beamed.’ And you can’t ‘smirk’ a sentence.

All this is to say that not every word an infographic claims as a synonym for ‘said’ is one. You should always ask yourself how natural your choice of synonym sounds and feels. Maybe read it out loud. Question everything.

For my part, I primarily use ‘said,’ and when I mix in alternatives, I keep a tight rein on my choices. The synonyms for ‘said’ that I use typically only indicate volume and maybe tone, such as whispered, yelled, snarled, explained, or demanded. Anything that doesn’t describe the voice quality itself I express through quick narrative description around the dialogue. All this serves to keep the reader’s awareness of reading a story below the conscious level while also building an accurate picture of how important sentences are spoken.

Struck from my list entirely is any direct synonym for ‘said,’ such as spoke or uttered. There’s no need for that.

Got any questions about using ‘said’ versus synonyms in your writing? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOUR experiences with dialogue tags, I want to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

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