• Emily N. King

Large Black Coffee, Hold the Dialogue Tags

Creative writing instructors in high school and college did us a service by teaching the importance of dialogue tags----he cried, she explained, we shouted, et cetera----more specifically, though, I recall being taught to avoid the word "said."

A passage such as this, for example, was a capital crime:

"Large black coffee," the customer said.

"That will be thirty-two dollars," the barista said.

"I'm probably the only black coffee drinker left," the customer said.

"Get well soon," the barista said.

The overuse of the word "said" in this conversation isn't grammatically wrong, per se, but our instructors would argue that it offers no sense of emotion or life. Where's the feeling? The panache?

This exchange does lack emotion, but I believe many writers (myself included, on multiple occasions) have taken this lesson to mean that we must fear the word "said" and take great pains to ensure that "said" never appears in our work----as if whispering "said" three times in front of a mirror will conjure the angry spirit of your freshman English teacher.

That being said, it's not much better when you simply supplant "said" with other words, is it?

"Large black coffee," the customer ordered.

"That will be thirty-two dollars," the barista replied.

"I'm probably the only black coffee drinker left," the customer scoffed.

"Get well soon," the barista muttered.

We've obeyed our instructors' wishes and managed to establish some semblance of emotional tone, but despite not using "said" once, this passage still feels clunky and verges on unnatural.

My point here is that your dialogue is not suffering because of "said." "Said" is nothing to be afraid of, so stop Googling words to replace it. I promise, your readers will not come after you with an angry mob of grammar elitists, and if your freshman English teacher does choose to haunt you, I can only assume you've committed far greater crimes, such as using who's instead of whose, or I love Hemingway instead of I love Poe.

Said or no said, my personal philosophy on dialogue tags is less is more----fewer dialogue tags make it easier for a conversation to flow naturally. Unless it's unclear who is speaking, or a character is expressing a unique emotion or action, I tend to avoid using dialogue tags-----including "said"----altogether.

"Large black coffee," the customer said.

The barista nodded. "That will be thirty-two dollars."

"I'm probably the only black coffee drinker left."

"Get well soon."

This is better than our initial "he said, she said" exchange. We still used "said," but the world didn't end, and----despite the absence of dialogue tags toward the end----we still understand who is speaking. The conversation flows naturally and is easy to visualize. At the very least, this interaction is passable, and the reader will have no problem understanding what's going on.

And luckily, if your fear of "said" is just that strong, it can easily be replaced with something like "ordered" or "requested" without changing the tone one bit.

However, as writers, we don't want our work to be merely passable, so----just for kicks----let's try it one last time.

A bell sounded as the door to the nondescript coffee shop opened. The customer----a balding, middle-aged man with an air of self-importance----approached the counter.

"Your drive-thru line was too long, and I'm late for a meeting," he said, yanking a leather wallet from his pocket.

"I apologize, sir. We're understaffed today," the barista explained. "What can I get started for you?"

"Large black coffee."

She nodded, punching the order into the register. "Will that be----"

"I don't understand those froufrou drinks," the customer interjected. "Those mochaccino--dunkaroo--vanilla--whatever--the--hells----I just want regular. Old. Coffee."

"No problem, sir. That will be thirty-two dollars."

"I'm probably the only black coffee drinker left," he continued, passing off his credit card.

The barista swiped his payment, and with her best customer service smile, replied, "Get well soon."

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