What’s the problem with said?

I saw a tweet recently with the hashtag #SaidAlts offering suggestions for “said” alternatives that made me cringe. I’ve seen this come up a lot with new authors, this aversion to said. It’s not that I’m against using synonyms for said (I’m really not!), but the choices the tweet offered up struck me as trying way too hard to get away from a very utilitarian—and rightfully invisible—verb.

Okay, so here’s an example of dialogue:

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Now, with a more colourful alternative for said that was recommended in that tweet:

“I’m sorry,” he regretted.

Look at those two lines for a minute. Which works best? Sure, “regretted” is not as boring as “said”, but there are a few problems with using it.

The biggest problem is that “regretted” is not a synonym for “said”. Other said alternatives, like shouted, screamed, whispered, whimpered, hissed, declared, exclaimed, and so on—those are all verbs that describe the action of making noise with one’s mouth for the purposes of communication. “Regretted” has no such meaning.

You can’t take an “emotion” verb and hijack it as a dialogue tag. That would be like saying “he sorrowed” or “he celebrated”. It’s nonsensical. Those verbs can describe how the character is feeling as they speak; but they can’t describe the action of speaking. Make sense?

People like using alternatives to “said” because “said” is very blah. Like I mentioned above, it’s invisible. But that’s a good thing most of the time. In this particular snippet of dialogue, using “said” puts the focus on the dialogue, where it should be. The “I’m sorry” is the most important part of that line. When you use “regretted”, that overshadows the dialogue.

And, finally, in this particular line, “regretted” is repetitive. The character has already said “I’m sorry” which is an illustration of his regret. The dialogue tag “he regretted” is telling…and not necessary. Remember, show, don’t tell!

So should you use said? Should you use alternatives?

The answer is yes to both. Sort of.

It’s okay if dialogue tags are invisible because everything the reader needs to know about how the dialogue is being spoken should be in the dialogue itself. With some exceptions, of course (there are always exceptions). It might not be obvious from the dialogue or the context of the scene that the character is whispering, for example, so it’s perfectly okay to use a dialogue tag like “he whispered” or “he murmured”. There are other situations like this, as well—and of course, you can toss in a said alternative whenever you feel like it. The one hard and fast rule I’d adhere to is avoid overuse of anything.

Something you should consider instead of using said or said alternatives is just getting rid of the dialogue tags altogether. This is something my editors have recommended pretty consistently. Readers mostly use dialogue tags to identify who’s speaking. If it’s clear who’s speaking, cut the tag. For variety, use an action beat with the dialogue (and this can help show emotion, too, if used right).

“I’m sorry.” He fidgeted with his pack.

With that simple action beat, we know the speaker regrets whatever he did and he’s embarrassed about it. OR—depending on context—maybe he doesn’t regret what he did and the fidget is because he’s lying. It’s a lot more descriptive than “he said” or even “he regretted”.

So here’s an exercise for you: go through a few pages of your current WIP and take out the dialogue tags. Can you tell who’s speaking? If not, add one or two back in, but try adding action beats, too, and see how that affects your voice and your pace. Good luck!

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