As writers, we all know the importance of varying our word choices. However, regardless of what your middle school language arts teacher might have taught you, this concept should not extend to dialog tags.
If you’re like me, you have probably had at least one English teacher admonish you for overusing the word, “said” when writing narrative. That teacher probably asked that you instead switch it up and use dialog tags such as, “he replied,” “she moaned,” “he argued,” and “she admonished.” While this might have been appropriate for a middle school English class, it is absolutely incorrect for a novel.
Unfortunately, this is not something most English teachers will tell you. In fact, they probably do not even realize they are feeding you incorrect information. Your middle school and high school (and sometimes even your college) English teachers have not been trained to teach you to write books that will be published. They have been trained to teach you to write essays and/or stories whose only purpose is to demonstrate that you have learned the basic writing concepts taught in a particular course.
In writing, as in various other aspects of life, it is important to remember that the most basic rules are often meant to be broken. However, it is only once you have mastered these basic rules that you may learn when it is okay, and even appropriate, to break those rules. Unfortunately, too few English teachers ever think to inform you that it may someday be appropriate to break the rules that he or she has taught you.
At this point, you may be wondering why you should not vary your word choice when writing dialog tags. You might even be thinking that it’s boring to read the word, “said” in one paragraph after another throughout an entire novel.
The thing is, dialog tags should be invisible and should not draw attention to themselves. Their only purpose is to keep the reader informed as to who is speaking. Your dialog tag should not convey any additional information, such as what the speaker is doing or how the speaker is saying the words. Instead, this information should be “shown” (remember, you want to *show* what’s happening rather than *telling* about it) in the surrounding text.
When you use dialog tags like “he said” and “she said,” not only will you not bore your reader with the repetitive word, but you will ensure that your reader doesn’t even notice the word exists within the text of your story. When you use creative dialog tags and vary your word choice within your dialog tags, you call attention to the dialog tags. You pull your readers out of the story and draw attention to the fact that they are reading words on a page. This is the last thing you want to do. You never want your dialog tags to be more interesting than your story!