Use Only "Said" or "Asked" as a Dialogue Tag

Why make this change?

I’m fully prepared for many of you to take exception to this one. I’ve violated it myself. But I wish I hadn’t.

The main purpose of a dialogue tag is for the reader to keep track of who’s speaking. You don’t need one after every quote, unless there are more than two people in the conversation, and it’s not clear from the context who said it.

Let’s take a few examples.

“Get out of here,” he ordered.

The sentence, “Get out of here,” is an imperative sentence. That is, it gives a command. It is by its very nature an order. In other words, the reader does not need to be told that whoever said it was giving an order. The reader needs only to understand who said it.

I opened a romance to a random pages. Here are the tags I found:

He teased
She replied
He muttered
She whispered
A few saids
She demanded
Said warily
Said quietly

Let’s first consider “replied.” Everything said in response to something another person says is a reply. Why tell the reader that what is obviously a reply is a reply? The same can be said about answered, responded, retorted, or any of their synonyms.

What about “demanded?” Demanded is the same as “ordered.” I know from the nature of the statement that it’s a demand.

“Teased” is more complicated, in a way. Perhaps it sheds light on the inflection of voice, but I submit that it should be clear from the context that something said is a tease.

As to “warily,” I don’t know what that means in the context of how something is said. So, as a reader, I have to stop and think about it. Try to picture it. If it’s not clear from the context (which it should be) wouldn’t it be better to show a facial expression or a gesture?

That leaves “muttered,” “whispered,” and “quietly.” These are not as heinous as the others. I’ll grant that it might matter whether something is muttered, whispered, or said quietly, and that such may not be obvious from the context. To this list you could probably add “stammered,” “stuttered,” “shouted,” and their synonyms. 

That brings us to the use of adverbs. Those pesky words ending in “ly.”

Wryly
Slyly
Sheepishly
Brightly
Angrily
And on and on . . .

Read my blog on Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules. Rule No. 4: never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”