An Analysis of Dialogue Tag Use
by Marcus Vance
Some writers will tell you that “said” is all you need—that your dialogue itself should answer any questions as to how the character speaks, and their tone.
Other writers will tell you to revel in the vast expanse of language. These writers will say your characters must “whisper,” “yell,” “ejaculate,” and “huff.” Never to simply “say” something.
As with most subjects in life, people take sides and defend them with gusto. Some only use “said,” and others say that “said is dead.”
While every single point across those battle lines can and has been done well, I wanted to study what the “average” short story looks like—at least in regard to dialogue tags. Using a definition I’ve modified from The Write Practice, I define dialogue tags as “a small phrase before, after, or between the dialogue that tells the reader who is speaking, and possibly how they speak.” The Science Fiction Writers of America defines a short story as a story of 7,500 words or less.
The question I wanted to answer was this: what dialogue tags are most commonly used, and how often are they used? Put another way: is “said” dead?
In order to answer this question, I took a two-pronged approach:
Step One: I performed a content analysis of seven award-winning short stories to find which tags the authors used, and how often they used them.
Step Two: I conducted a poll of over 800 writers on Twitter about their use of tags.
My first act was to find seven short stories that have won a Hugo and/or a Nebula award for fantasy and science fiction. I chose these stories because 1) speculative fiction is what I’m most familiar with; 2) the Hugo and Nebula awards give a view of works generally considered “good” by professional writers, as well as avid readers; and 3) the stories are readily available online.
I searched out each use of a dialogue tag within these seven stories. Then I counted how many separate tags were used in each piece, and how often each tag appears.
Next, I averaged the number and type of tags used in the seven stories to give an example of which and how many tags the “usual” short story would use. I used the average so that the results can easily be seen and understood at a glance. (I will include all my raw data at the end.)
This “usual” short story would have 34 total instances of tags.
- Said: 23 times
- Asked: 2 times
- Whispered: 1 time
- Other: 8 times (see list of “other” tags below)
- Average of 8 different tags per story
On average, the seven stories used “said” most often at 67% of the time. However, the authors used plenty of other tags as well. Even the one story (see Story #5 below) that exclusively used “said” only used that tag twice. (As a side note, I was surprised that almost every story had some sort of quiet tag like “whispered” or “murmured.”)
Considering this sample, it seems that these award-winning authors used whatever tags they thought best fit the situation. They don’t generally limit themselves to one side or the other of the “just said/said is dead” spectrum.
The second prong of my study was a poll on Twitter. I asked writers what tags they used, and gave four options:
- Just “said.”
- “Said” and “Asked.”
- Whatever fits.
- “Said” is dead.
Thankfully, I got a pretty good response: 867 writers, both amatuer and professional. Here are the results:
- 59% (512 people) use whatever tag fits.
- 24% (208 people) stick with only “said” or “asked.”
- 11% (95 people) only use “said.”
- 6% (52 people) believe that “said is dead,” and avoid “said” like the plague.
The majority of people polled do not fall along the extremes of the “just said/said is dead” spectrum. This is in agreement my content analysis of the seven award-winning stories: most people don’t actually think “said is dead,” but use whatever fits—even “said.” See for yourself:
- One of the downsides of a content analysis is that I get the data—the “what”—but not the rationale behind the choices of dialogue tags—the “why” and “how.” Do these award-winning authors know something the rest of us don’t? Did they pay attention to their dialogue tag choices at all? That, and more, is far beyond the scope of this study.
- I didn’t take into account the use of actions to attribute dialogue. For example: “Jen coughed into her drink, and turned her head to me. ‘Ha! He did what?’” No tag there, just a description of what the character does. At least 29 people spoke up during my poll, and said that they preferred action bumpers like this over tags. I did not count these in my content analysis, although Story #7 used them often.
- In my Twitter poll, I also had no option for “no tags”—that is, using only characters’ names, accents, talking order, or content of speech within the dialogue itself to differentiate who is speaking.
THE BIG PICTURE:
My takeaway from this project is in line with an overarching philosophy I have: the answer is always somewhere in between the extremes. There’s a place for “said,” a place for “yelled” and “muttered,” a place for action, and a place for no tags. As a writer, I will be striving to include all of them in future works, as the prose dictates.
That being said: writing is a diverse art. Every writer has their own voice, and should look deeply before changing their words—regardless of what studies, peers, mentors, teachers, or critics may say. Diversity in writing is exactly why reading is amazing.
Table Of Dialogue Tags
|Story 1||Story 2||Story 3||Story 4||Story 5||Story 6||Story 7||Total|
- Story 1:
Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™
- Story 2:
Seasons of Glass and Iron
by AMAL EL–MOHTAR
- Story 3:
Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers
by ALYSSA WONG
- Story 4:
- Story 5:
The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere
by John Chu
- Story 6:
by Ken Liu
- Story 7:
‘‘For Want of a Nail”
by Mary Robinette Kowal