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  • Writer's pictureRachel Paige

Retorted, Chided, Gushed

Last week, we talked about the use of adverbs in dialogue and I mentioned that changing the dialogue tag to a word other then "said" (like muttered, whispered, cried, replied, etc.) is a cop-out. Why is that? Haven't we all heard that said is dead? Doesn't it spice up your writing to use words like "retorted," "chided," and "gushed?"

No. It doesn't.

Here's the thing about tags like that. They have no purpose. Said and retorted mean the same thing. Gushed implies a character is speaking quickly and is excited. Use the words and punctuation to show that. Don't tell the reader the character gushed, just let the character do it.

Also, as a quick side note: words like "laughed" and "snickered" are not dialogue tags. You can't laugh, sigh, snort, snicker, or chuckle a sentence. End the dialogue with a period and make those action beats.

Another problem is dialogue tags usually come after dialogue. Or in the middle of a longer statement. But the reader has already read the dialogue and read it in the tone the phrasing and punctuation told them they should. Tacking on "gushed" or "chided" to the end doesn't make them hear the sentence differently. It makes them confused.

Pacing is also messed up with "fancy" dialogue tags. "Said" is so common in reading that is acts like punctuation. Readers glance at the dialogue tag to see who is speaking, but they glaze right over "said." If you start chucking other words in there, your reader is going to slow down, because they have to actually read the dialogue tag.

Read the following lines:

"I told you to stay here," I scolded.

"There's no one in there!" Elle argued.

"I don't care," I replied. "I want you to stay here until Mom and Dad get back."

"You're not in charge of me," she countered.

"I'm two years older than you!" I shouted. "So until Mom and Dad get here, I'm responsible for you."

She started to answer when Dad's car pulled in. "Looks like you're relieved of your duties," she gloated.

Did you read that quickly? Did you fly through those lines as if they were a real argument? I'm guessing you hesitated a bit on the dialogue tags. Let's revise that scene a bit and change everything back to said or replace it with action.

"I told you to stay here," I said.

"There's no one in there!"

"I don't care," I said. "I want you to stay here until Mom and Dad get back."

Elle rolled her eyes. "You're not in charge of me."

"I'm two years older than you!" I stepped between her and the house. "So until Mom and Dad get here, I'm responsible for you."

She started to answer, but smiled instead when Dad's car pulled in. "Looks like you're relieved of your duties."

Isn't that better? Didn't that move quicker? Didn't that show you what was happening instead of telling you? And I didn't change any of the words. Just the tags and action.

You also might have noticed that sometimes you don;t need a tag or action at all. In this scene (which is in the opening chapter of my new project), it's established that Elle is the one he's talking to. I didn't need to put a dialogue tag after her first line, because it's obvious she's talking.

While said isn't dead, using it after every line can kill the scene. Anything used in excess is distracting to the reader. So having I said, she said, and I said all back to back is a lot. Usually, the reader can figure it out. Especially in situations with only two characters. But even when there's more than that, the distinctive voice of the characters helps readers figure out who's speaking. The action also helps since it acts as a dialogue tag.

Writers who think said are dead do so for a few reasons. 1) They have a big vocabulary and want to show it off or they think big words make them look smarter and/or like a better writer. 2) They're new to writing and don't know any better (That's okay! We all have to start somewhere!). 3) Their dialogue is weak and they need "fancy" tags to make it clear. 4) They don't trust themselves or they don't trust the reader.

Trust your reader. Learn to write good dialogue; it's important. Don't show off. Writers who can pull off the same scene with less or smaller words will always look better at their job than ones who use obviously write with a thesaurus next to them.

So next time you see a post that says said is dead or hear someone tell you that, ignore it. Instagram and Pinterest may think said is dead, but just about every writing book out there will tell you it's alive and well.


Do you find yourself avoiding "said?" What are your thoughts on it now?

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