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Using "said" in MG

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I recently received a critique back from an agent and she was saying for speech tags I shouldn't use words like "exclaimed, declared, or insisted" and instead use the word "said" since it takes the reader out of the narrative and makes them aware of you as the author. She also pointed out I shouldn't use "she responded in a cocky tone" since you're telling the reader the character spoke in a cocky voice but I'm thinking if I drop the "in a cocky tone" part that maybe that might be okay. Would it be? Because I would still like to use words like "responded" or "answered" such as "she responded" or "she answered" so that I could still switch from using the word "said" too much.   :bewildered

Can someone please help me out? Do I really need to change every speech tag to "said?" This is for a MG novel written in 3rd person. Thanks so much!
#1 - November 16, 2018, 11:33 AM

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Yes, use said in almost every instance. "Said" is invisible in a way that synonyms are not. Some use of "asked" is fine, and *occasional* use of words like "whispered," "snapped," "shouted," and so forth, can have good effect. But I would avoid "stated," "answered," "responded," and the like. Whenever possible, indicate tone by the way the dialogue itself is worded rather than relying on a tag. IOW, if the response is cocky, phrase what she says in a cocky way, or accompany the dialogue with a cocky gesture, before you resort to telling readers that the tone was cocky.

Read some MG, or really any published fiction, especially for the purpose of paying attention to this issue and see how they do it.  (Caveat: Don't take Harry Potter as your example. It's mainly the adverbs that are ill-advised, but she has some trouble with synonyms for said, too.)
#2 - November 16, 2018, 12:42 PM
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I agree with mrh, especially:

"IOW, if the response is cocky, phrase what she says in a cocky way, or accompany the dialogue with a cocky gesture, before you resort to telling readers that the tone was cocky."

My agent is vigilant about speech tags in revision and very much prefers "said" to any other descriptors. Like mrh wrote, "said" is invisible and blends in. Other words tend to grab your attention too much and take you out of the dialogue. Many times, if the dialogue is clear enough, you won't even need "said."

This, of course, is all *in general*...there are times when other speech tags work well, but use them sparingly. Save them for the places where they really count!
#3 - November 16, 2018, 12:52 PM

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Definitely take a look at some MG, and count how many times something other than *said* is used...I suspect you'll notice it's pretty rare. As mrh and Josiecv pointed out, *said* is pretty much invisible. Also, if you're struggling with having to use it too much, you can always avoid dialogue tags altogether (at least some of the time). Simply starting a new paragraph and including action will let the reader know who's talking.

"I bet you can't jump over that fence," Joe said.

Sam eyed the wooden boards at the top of the short slope. "Can too."
#4 - November 16, 2018, 02:18 PM
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Crystal, you've rec'd good advice. Dialogue is the one place where you want the illusion of real conversation. Here are some tips: https://vijayabodach.blogspot.com/2017/07/dialogue-its-not-just-talk.html
#5 - November 16, 2018, 02:32 PM
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Thanks, everyone! So I'm still a little confused if someone is yelling or talking lowly. Is it okay to use these? 

Examples:
"No! Not Today!" she screamed.
"No! Not Today!" she said in a raised voice.
"I didn't want to do it," she said in a low voice.
"I  didn't want to do it," she muttered.




#6 - November 16, 2018, 03:08 PM

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In your first two examples, the raised voice is indicated by the short, snappy phrasing and the exclamation marks. No need to say that the speaker screamed or raised her voice. 

I think the second example, "in a raised voice," sounds awkward and too wordy. Ditto the third example.

The fourth example can work, as long as you're not using synonyms for said most of the time. Nothing wrong with a mutter here and there. 

#7 - November 16, 2018, 04:31 PM
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I've never bought the oft-asserted maxim that said is somehow transparent to the reader. More than three saids in a row sets up an annoying monotony that never fails to pop me out of the narrative.

Demonstrably false is the claim that using tags other than said or asked , or adverbs in a tag, brands a writer as an amateur, doomed to financial failure and suffering endless derision by their literary betters.

In Clawback, J. A. Jance goes hog wild with tag verbs: asked, added, admitted, advised, agreed, allowed, answered, asked, assured, began, called, called after, cautioned, chimed in, commanded, corrected, croaked, declared, demanded, echoed, explained, groused, growled, grumbled, inquired, insisted, interjected, managed, muttered, nodded (!), observed, ordered, pleaded, repeated, replied, returned, said, smiled (!), sneered, sniffed (!), sobbed, suggested, told, urged, whined, whispered, and that's just from a random sampling.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling uses these tags: said, told, muttered, whispered, called, snapped, added, murmured, mumbled, began, snarled, suggested, reminded, moaned, shouted, explained, stammered, warned, screamed, sighed, repeated, agreed, grunted, yelled, groaned, admitted, wondered, pressed, hissed, smiled(!), sobbed, whined, ordered, lied, cried, wailed, confessed, declared, interrupted, bellowed, grumbled, observed, replied, choked out, howled, urged, advised, pleaded.

77% of that book's tag verbs are "said", but by no means all.

Generally I agree that every ms could benefit from a merciless tag-ectomy pass during revision. But spoken delivery cannot always be implied in plaintext or cliched gesture or facial expression. Often a writer can justifiably economize by allowing a character to be expressive with a non-said verb, a "!", and even (gasp!) a dreaded adverb:

“Red card!” said Dean furiously.
“Watching — spying — might be following us,” muttered Uncle Vernon wildly.
“I wish I knew what this means!” he burst out angrily.
Harry sprang toward the flame door, but Voldemort screamed “SEIZE HIM!”
“All yours,” smiled Hagrid.
“Come here,” Quirrell repeated.
When they shook their heads, he wailed, “I’ve lost him! He keeps getting away from me!”

Good enough for J.K. and her billion readers, good enough for me and mine.

BTW HPatPS was Rowling's debut novel. Clearly her agent, editors, and publisher did not object to her liberal use of non-said tag verbs.

I submit that the OP's agent was merely parroting what "respectable" authors and opinionators assert concerning the hallmarks of good vs. crummy writing.
#8 - November 16, 2018, 05:33 PM
« Last Edit: November 16, 2018, 05:59 PM by A. S. Templeton »
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...Don't take Harry Potter as your example. It's mainly the adverbs that are ill-advised, but she has some trouble with synonyms for said, too.
Why not HP? Rowling is phenomenally successful. Judging by sales and popularity, I and hundreds of millions of other readers are not so troubled by her writing style that we refuse to read or recommend her books.

Out of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone's 77.7kw, 939 of those are adverbs, or 1.21% -- arguably pretty high. Keeping adverbs well under 1% is my personal writing goal, but I ain't gonna bust a gut striving to avoid adverbs. There are simply not enough unique English verbs to do the job, so those little helpers must sometimes be brought in.

And if one of my characters simply must screech! or moan, that's fine too, since 1) every reader knows what those verbs mean, and 2) they cannot reasonably be deemed synonymous with plain-vanilla say.

#9 - November 16, 2018, 06:22 PM
« Last Edit: November 16, 2018, 06:27 PM by A. S. Templeton »
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Crystal, it could be that you're diluting the value of those other tags by overusing them instead of said. If you switch from said, do so for a reason. Some examples are in the work above. The key is to think about the choices you make.

“Red card!” said Dean furiously. Context may or may not show furiously. Shouted could be better here.
“Watching — spying — might be following us,” muttered Uncle Vernon wildly. Muttered makes sense in this case. It helps convey the wildness.
“I wish I knew what this means!” he burst out angrily.
Harry sprang toward the flame door, but Voldemort screamed “SEIZE HIM!”
“All yours,” smiled Hagrid. Smiling doesn't express sound. This should, to me, be separate sentences.


Using actions to show who is speaking is one of the best ways to avoid tags. Also, use them sparingly when only two people are present. You change paragraphs for each speaker so the reader will know. Notice how few tags i use below.

John said, "I hate that guy."
"I know, right." Tears filled Jill's eyes.
"We could get back at him."
"What? How?'
"He left his folder. We could hide it."
Jill sniffled. "But--but it wouldn't be right."
"You sure?"
"Yeah. But that doesn't mean I'll bring it to him." She smiled.
#10 - November 16, 2018, 06:48 PM
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The occasional adverb or variant of "said" is not going to destroy the fabric of the universe, but if you want stronger writing, it really is best to pare down those kinds of things as much as possible. JK Rowling is popular *in spite of* her dialogue tags. If your plots are as intricately staged and your characters are as relatable and your themes hit people in the heart like hers, well...your dialogue tags might be forgiven, too. :) But adverbs aren't what made her popular. In any case, it's best to just make your writing as strong as it possibly can be.

"Said" really is mostly invisible to the reader. The times when it's not is when a tag could be left out altogether, or when you don't vary your sentence structure enough. Example:

"Let's go home," she said.
"I don't want to go home yet," he said.
"But it's raining," she said.
"I like rain," he said.

See? The sentence structure is BORING. But you don't fix it by putting in every color of the rainbow in your tags. You just remove some of them. Two people are talking. It should be possible to keep them straight and still remove some tags. Maybe put in a line of action, instead.

"Let's go home," she said.
He looked at the baseball pitch. "I don't want to go home yet."
"But it's raining."
He held out his hand and watched a drop of water hit his palm. "But I like rain."

I think that the other issue when it comes to "said" versus a synonym is if the sentence would be truly ambiguous without it. Sometimes you do have to use "murmured" or something like that because otherwise there is no way for the reader to get that from context. But some things you DO get from context, especially if they involve exclamation points already. Example:

"Get away from me!" she screamed.

This is redundant. There is already an exclamation point. That MEANS screaming or talking in a raised voice. Trust that your reader can figure it out.

Of course there are times to use something other than "said." But just realize that less is more. Don't let your tags get in the way of your dialogue.
#11 - November 17, 2018, 06:54 AM

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JK Rowling is popular *in spite of* her dialogue tags. If your plots are as intricately staged and your characters are as relatable and your themes hit people in the heart like hers, well...your dialogue tags might be forgiven, too.
I'm sensing a reluctance here to admit even the possibility that JK's success is attributable to her employing the full arsenal of literary devices, up to and including 1.2 w/w% adverbs and nearly one in four tag verbs not being said. Literary theoreticians may despise those, but there's no evidence that they harm the marketability of a good story.

It only muddies the waters to mention how her characters are engaging, the "wizards among us" and "magic school" tropes are freshly spun, and the book's BE-flavored vernacular nevertheless is accessible beyond the UK. Those have been talked over endlessly elsewhere.

As for "forgiven", JK's agent, editors, publishers, and readers have all decided there is nothing to forgive, making JK worth £650 million in the process.
#12 - November 17, 2018, 08:27 AM
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there's no evidence that they harm the marketability of a good story.

What the evidence actually shows, I think, is that they don't harm the marketability of a story *that takes the world by storm.* Good stories suffering from weak writing are rejected by agents in droves on a daily basis (both for the weak writing and for being merely "good" when what they're looking for is a stand-out). As a long-time writing teacher, I know how common it is for a writer to have a good story but their writing isn't up to the same level.

As for "forgiven", JK's agent, editors, publishers, and readers have all decided there is nothing to forgive

Not all, no. Even some who adore HP -- and I am one of them -- recognize that much of the sentence-level writing is adequate at best. And I do know people who have closed the books because of the writing, especially if they have attempted to read them out loud with children.

I think the important point for newer writers is that we have to look carefully before we borrow literary techniques from blockbuster sellers. They get to do (yes, are "forgiven" for) things we could not get away with, sometimes including just plain weak writing.
#13 - November 17, 2018, 10:55 AM
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They get to do (yes, are "forgiven" for) things we could not get away with, sometimes including just plain weak writing.
:werd

For me, the takeaway is always that when we look at best-selling authors, we try to find that piece that truly makes them stand out. For some writers, it *is* the writing itself -- that amazing voice and style that just feels like silk. Other writers, however, excel in other areas and are able to succeed *despite* weaker writing skills. JKR is one of the latter, imo. Her characters, her stories -- those are what shine and what lights up our imagination. Her actual writing isn't great, by any means. I think seeing her put together the next Fantastic Beasts franchise really brings home her exceptional abilities to create characters and stories that far exceed those of the average person -- and she doesn't need to rely on sentence-level skills for that, either. Win-win. ;)
#14 - November 17, 2018, 02:07 PM
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I would have put The Sorcerer's Stone down because of the writing if my son wasn't making me read it. The first six books could each have been 50 pages shorter if you ask me without changing the plot or losing any element needed in later books. (I'm still reading book seven, so can't comment there yet. So far it's not that many pages too long.)

But this is a digression. Summarizing the advice given: strong verbs beat adverbs and action sentences can replace tags. Vary sentence structure and consider how many people are talking before deciding what tags are needed. Said can become boring if overused, but will disappear if used well. Sometimes substitutes convey needed information. I think that covers it.
#15 - November 17, 2018, 06:02 PM
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HP is why writing gets me dizzy sometimes - it seems there are always the exceptions to a style that everyone ALWAYS says should not be used!

What I've been doing sounds similar to what Debbie just said - I use "said" but infrequently also use "shout" - but, include it in the first person ("Dad is shouting again") and then Dad's question ("What's happening up there?") - not sure if it works, but at least it's another way of crossing the same goal (lol).

Frank
#16 - November 17, 2018, 09:59 PM
« Last Edit: November 17, 2018, 10:06 PM by Frank Oliver »

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The only thing I will add is to remember that British rules and U.S. rules regarding spelling and grammar will differ at times. Spelling can change from U.S. "color" to British "colour". So when submitting, it's probably best to follow the "rules" of that nation or publisher.

#17 - November 20, 2018, 02:10 PM
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The only thing I will add is to remember that British rules and U.S. rules regarding spelling and grammar will differ at times. Spelling can change from U.S. "color" to British "colour". So when submitting, it's probably best to follow the "rules" of that nation or publisher.
House and customary styles too might apply. Many UK writers commonly place the tag verb before the subject: "Howdy," said Bob.

Whereas American writers (especially those of the Only Said orthodoxy) tend to place the verb post: "Say what?" Simon said.

This latter example illustrates what I call the dreaded Simon Says effect, named after an actual MG book wherein the writer uses dozens of instances of Simon said, every one of which popped me out of the narrative with a reminder of the nursery game refrain.
#18 - November 20, 2018, 03:40 PM
When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
—C.S. Lewis

Admittedly, I haven't read all of the responses (time inhibits me!), but from what I have read, there's some great advice.
This was a mistake I made for a very long time myself. When I've written recently I change the tag line slightly, just to vary it. These days though, I have noticed that it isn't necessary to change the tag line, since its whole purpose is to assist the reader gain a feeling of how the character is feeling whilst in dialogue. You'd generally get that from the previous paragraph.

Olmue: You have given good tips. Leaving out the tag in every incidence was an apprehensive one since most advice is not to do so. However, it works in wip. Otherwise the dialogue drags.
Thanks.
#19 - November 21, 2018, 03:17 AM

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Thanks, everyone. I was also wondering about speech tags for thoughts. Is it okay to have those?

For example:
 I really don't like these new shoes, she thought.
#20 - November 24, 2018, 12:00 PM

Pardon if this has been mentioned (I didn't read replies word for word). Our character's personalities, if well developed, along with the tone and action we've shown (not told), omits the need for anything except "said." We're not telling the reader how the character spoke; rather, we're showing through the narrative that they would have, for example, exclaimed.
#21 - November 24, 2018, 12:30 PM
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Thanks, everyone. I was also wondering about speech tags for thoughts. Is it okay to have those?

For example:
 I really don't like these new shoes, she thought.


Yes, it's fine. Some people italicize thoughts to distinguish them from spoken words but it's not necessary because you use quotation marks for spoken words. That's the one thing that drove me crazy reading Angela's Ashes. No quotation marks, so sometimes I wondered whether the words were spoken or just thought. Still, what a fantastic book!
#22 - November 24, 2018, 12:39 PM
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Some choose to italicise, some don't. So long as it isn't in quotation marks you can generally get the idea that character is thinking. On a personal level I would use italics. Most of the time that's to keep me on track, not the reader!
#23 - November 24, 2018, 12:52 PM

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Thanks so much!
#24 - November 24, 2018, 02:22 PM

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...character's personalities, if well developed, along with the tone and action ... shown (not told), omits the need for anything except "said."
So claimeth literary theorists. For MGers and other readers inexperienced with or indifferent to nuance and subtext, a healthy dose of non-saids (& adverbs) is acceptable and even necessary. See prior posts this thread demonstrating liberal usage of same by highly successful authors.
#25 - November 24, 2018, 02:27 PM
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... speech tags for thoughts.
British authors once commonly put thoughts in quotes:
'They will make it. They will escape,' thought Pippin.

Re: italics, the same author (JRRT) uses italics for Bilbo's speech at his 111th birthday party:
My dear people, began Bilbo, rising in his place. 'Hear! Hear! Hear!' they shouted, and...

These days, who knows. I guess what's important is to be consistent, then let the house editors and book designers sort out the final style.
#26 - November 24, 2018, 02:38 PM
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New!
I guess what's important is to be consistent, then let the house editors and book designers sort out the final style.

Very much this. I have telepaths in my YA, so many thoughts are dialog. I use italics to show it's thought rather than spoken and add tags where needed. Something thought to a specific person not in the same location as the speaker and said aloud to others will be in both and is tagged as thought to person and said aloud. I've had to create some of my own rules here to keep from confusing the reader. Confusing the reader is a huge problem. Avoid it at all costs, unless there is a story reason to create confusion in the reader's mind, of course.
#27 - November 24, 2018, 06:17 PM
« Last Edit: November 26, 2018, 05:50 PM by Debbie Vilardi »
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New!
I've been researching this,  as a matter of curiosity.  The general consensus seems to be that thoughts would be  italicised,  but not in speech marks since they are a personal conversation &  not meant to be spoken aloud or responded to.
In essence, I agree with Debbie.
#28 - November 26, 2018, 07:24 AM
« Last Edit: November 26, 2018, 09:50 AM by thunderingelephants »

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