Are You Using “Said” Too Frequently? Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Beats Explained

SHARE THIS POST:

 

Two women talking on phones.

How often can you use the word “said” in one page?

Probably more than you think.

Yes, you’ve been told (by tutors, your writing group, or beta readers) to watch out for words that occur too frequently. But “said” isn’t one you need to worry about.

The word “said” can crop up quite a lot and go almost unnoticed. As a reader, you barely notice it; as a writer, it’s more obvious (since you write far more slowly than you can read, and you may be pausing to think through the dialogue as you craft it).

In fact, it’s much more problematic to keep finding alternatives for “said” in an attempt to make things more interesting. These do draw attention to themselves. They also risk becoming a bit silly:

“Sophie!” he exclaimed.

“What is it, John?” she demanded.

“You look stunning today,” he opined.

Of course, having “he said” or “she said” after every piece of dialogue will indeed start to grate on the reader. In this post, I’ll be giving you some alternatives – and explaining how to use each effectively.

First, we need to define a couple of terms: dialogue tag and dialogue beat.

What’s a Dialogue Tag?

A “dialogue tag” is something that “tags” a line of dialogue with a particular character’s name or pronoun. Here are some examples, with the dialogue tags in bold text:

“Do you remember anything about the accident?” John asked.

Sue said, “No. I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” he said, “but if you do think of anything, call me.”

The dialogue tag can come before, after, or during a line of dialogue. The rules for punctuating dialogue and associated tags are quite precise, and you can find a good primer here.

Dialogue tags can, of course, go far beyond “he said” … and we’ll get onto that in a moment.

What’s a Dialogue Beat?

An “dialogue beat” (often used interchangeably with “action beat”) is a sentence of narrative that’s associated with a character’s line of dialogue. It can create a short pause (a “beat”) within the blow-for-blow of dialogue. For instance:

John stared out of the window. “I get this feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.”

“Like what?” Sue stayed right where she was, arms folded. “What exactly are you accusing me of?”

As with dialogue tags, dialogue beats can go before, after or in the middle of a line of dialogue. Punctuation is also critically important here too: the rule is that the beat must go in the same paragraph as the associated speaker’s dialogue.

Here’s how to use tags and beats in practice:

Using Dialogue Tags Well

Does anything about this example jar with you?

“Do you remember anything about the accident?” John queried, insistently.

Sue said in a low voice, “No. I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” he said quickly, “but if you do think of anything, call me.”

The problem with more complex dialogue tags is that they draw the reader’s attention to themselves (not to the actual dialogue, which is usually the interesting part!) Often, they’re redundant or unnecessary: we get the full meaning from the dialogue without them.

Fancy dialogue tags are sometimes called “said-bookisms” (you can find out why and view plenty of examples here on TV Tropes). (Health/productivity warning: TV Tropes can be hard to escape!)

Occasionally, a tag beyond “said” or “asked” might be necessary, if it’s not clear from the words how they’re spoken (and the way in which they’re spoken matters):

“Do you remember anything about the accident?” John asked.

Sue whispered, “No. I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” he said, “but if you do think of anything, call me.”

Quick aside: I personally like to use “asked” for anything that ends in a question mark – for me, people don’t say questions, they ask them! Some writers differ on this.

So what tags can you use?

  • Said – always a safe bet.
  • Asked – I’ve never seen a reader object to this or even really notice it (provided it’s being used for a question).
  • Shouted – this may well be necessary if it’s not clear that a character has raised their voice (an exclamation mark or italics can cue the reader in as well).
  • Whispered – again, this may be necessary if we wouldn’t otherwise realise how quietly a character is speaking. I’m personally fine with “muttered” and “murmured” too (I feel they’re different from a whisper) but these could be seen as a bit too attention-drawing by some people.

Be careful with the last two: you probably don’t want to use them too frequently, so avoid over-tagging your dialogue (I’ll explain how in the rest of this post).

Which dialogue tags, then, can’t you use?

Well, you can use whatever the heck you like – the question is whether it works! I’d definitely advise taking care with:

  • Longer, more Latinate words where a simpler equivalent exists –g. “he questioned” or “he queried” instead of “he asked”.
  • Unusual words that stand out – e.g. “opined”, “expostulated”, “interjected”
  • Tags that aren’t really plausible ways of speaking a sentence – e.g. “he smiled”, “he laughed”, “he wept”. Nothing wrong with these as actions, though: just be careful you don’t accidentally punctuate them to look like dialogue tags.
  • Old-fashioned words or tag structures, unless these are in keeping with your setting or characterisation – e.g. “cried” for shouted, “said he” or “said I”.
  • And please, for I hope obvious reasons, avoid “he ejaculated”.

Using Dialogue Beats Well

Dialogue beats can be short or long, and short ones will often work just fine. If they’re longer than a sentence, then I’d probably think of them as actual narative rather than just a dialogue beat (and they could potentially break up a conversation into several sections).

Here are some short ones:

John looked up. “Do you remember anything about the accident?”

Sue shook her head. “I’m sorry.”

“Okay. But if you do think of anything, call me.” He smiled.

Important: note the difference between:

  1. “Okay. But if you do think of anything, call me,he smiled.
  2. “Okay. But if you do think of anything, call me.He smiled.

The first is not a dialogue beat: it’s using “he smiled” as a dialogue tag. I’d strongly advise against this. (Really, how can you smile a line of dialogue?)

The second is a dialogue beat. Note the full stop and the capital letter starting a new sentence.

This may seem like such a subtle difference that it’s hardly worth bothering about … but readers will notice the punctuation of your dialogue and it will affect how they read it.

To use dialogue beats effectively, try to:

  • Have them add to the dialogue in some way. This might mean demonstrating how something’s said … or undermining the speaker’s words.
  • Avoid using the same action over and over again. I have to look out for ones along the lines of “John turned to Sue” in my writing. K.M. Weiland has a good post about over-using the same dialogue beat here.
  • Consider relocating the scene so that the dialogue can be made more powerful (e.g. more tension-inducing, more emotionally involved) by the actions surrounding it. For instance, two characters arguing while washing dishes is going to be a different scene from two characters arguing in bed with their kids asleep in the next room.

Dialogue beats don’t have to involve action. You can also use thoughts or descriptions, in exactly the same way. For instance:

John wished she’d just get it over with and avoid making this even more unpleasant for both of them. “I get this feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.”

Or:

The sun had almost dipped beneath the horizon now, the world turning to monochrome. “I get this feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.”

Letting the Dialogue Stand on Its Own

Of course, one very easy way to avoid overusing “said” – and to steer clear of weird alternatives and repetitive dialogue beats – is to let your dialogue stand on its own, like this:

“Do you remember anything about the accident?” John asked.

Sue said, “No. I’m sorry.”

“Okay. But if you do think of anything, call me.”

If John and Sue are the only characters in the room, it’s obvious that the third line in the conversation belongs to John. (Even if there are other people present, we’d assume that John’s saying this as it follows on naturally.)

Although I’ve seen some authors go for the stylistic quirk of having whole pages of only dialogue, this quickly gets difficult to follow as a reader, as you end up having to count (or mentally read the lines in different voices) to avoid getting lost in who’s saying what.

It’s up to you, then, to find a balance. I’d suggest:

  • If it’s ever unclear to you who’s speaking (when you edit), then rewrite that line or add a tag to make it obvious. Readers will not want to re-read the sentence (and probably the preceding few lines) in order to figure out what’s going on. Worst case scenario, they’ll assume that someone else said that line of dialogue, potentially altering their whole understanding of your characters and story.
  • If you have three or more characters in a conversation, almost all your dialogue will need to either be tagged or have an action associated with it. You might be able to let the occasional short response stand alone, though.
  • Even if it is clear who’s speaking, it might better suit the pacing (or even the rhythm) of your prose to include a dialogue tag or beat. Unless you want a very quick-fire conversation, it’s worth adding in some action, thought or description around the dialogue to keep the pace moderate.

I hope this has helped clear up dialogue tags and beats, and given you some thoughts on how to use them (or at least how to avoid mis-using them!)

If you’re looking for tips on what to actually put between the quotation marks, then check out my post Stylised Talk: Writing Great Dialogue [With Examples].

And if you’re unsure about anything, just pop a comment below – feel free to include an example of what you’re currently doing with your dialogue, if you want some feedback or suggestions.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

7 thoughts on “Are You Using “Said” Too Frequently? Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Beats Explained

  1. Hi Ali,

    Great topic! I’ve always struggled with this “said” topic. I used to get in a real tangle after knowing I’d used it too much. Then, as I learnt more as a fiction writer, I began to use it less frequently. Now I often use “dialogue beat” although didn’t know the term until you introduced it here.

    I think you show here how much dialogue is affected by action and vice-versa.

    Thanks for an interesting and solution to a taxing problem for many fiction writers.

    – Tom
    Tom Southern’s last blog post ..How To Get Traffic When Everything You’ve Tried So Far Has Failed (and You Feel Like Giving Up)

    • Thanks Tom! It always takes me a few drafts to strike the right balance between dialogue and action, but as you say, they influence one another and it’s often rather more elegant to put in an action than to have a whole string of “he said” “she said”.

  2. Great post! Your point about “fancy dialogue tags” is particularly important. These were the primary reason Stephen King wrote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

    After the initial exchanges, I also often omit tags like said when the speaker is obvious. When an tag becomes necessary for clarification, I too substitute other words but use shouted or whispered only when the conditions don’t make them redundant, per your suggestion.

    Dialogue beats can work wonders when used properly. I also try to insert physical action such as rubbing the temple, putting the head in long spindly fingers as if they might divine an answer, etc. A character might turn her back if she is searching an answer, confused, or frustrated. She might even turn to her own thoughts.

    Action and thoughts are good ways to break up dialogue. Also, they often covey emotion in a powerful manner while giving the reader additional insights. Sometimes they can even be used to foreshadow an important trigger, conflict, turning point, etc.

    Thanks and happy writing!

    • Great examples and suggestions, Jeff! I find when I’m drafting that it’s easy to forget how much we communicate by body language (and tone) rather than by the actual words we speak — but as you say, actions and thoughts aren’t just useful for breaking up dialogue, they can be crucial to the meaning of the conversation and the plot of the ongoing story.

  3. Thanks for the post and for your examples that were so helpful to bring clarity to it. I have learnt once and for all times that you cannot smile or laugh a line of dialogue. Of course to avoid those tags that draw undue attention to themselves. Readers should be drawn to the dialogue itself not the tag.

    • Glad this was useful and that it clarified things for you, Ohita! I think that as readers, we don’t tend to pay a huge amount of attention to dialogue tags (or their omission) — which makes it hard when we want to write and we’re trying to figure out how to do it.