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I've seen a lot of advice that says you should scrap all non-'said' dialogue tags. I can see the value of this, but I'm not sure how to make it work in every instance.

It's pretty easy to show things like questions and exclamations through language and context without having to use 'creative' dialogue tags, but what about something like whispered? Is proximity enough? If I say someone 'leaned in and said something in so-and-so's ear' would that do it? That example feels like 'whispered in [x]'s ear' is such a common (cliché) phrase, that it would be more jarring to not have 'whispered'.

Is 'whispered' an exception to the rule or is it just me?

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    Whisper is an onomatopoeia – I always hear the 'pssst' in whisper, as if it's not too subtle…. "in a low voice" "under her breath" "quietly" "barely audible" "mouthed"
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 4, 2021 at 20:01
  • I am unfamiliar with that advice/rule. Would it be acceptable to write: >> "Go get help" she said in a whisper?<< ----- Have you encountered other ways of 'saying' something (via email, flowers, glances,...) and how did you cope there?
    – bukwyrm
    Nov 5, 2021 at 11:29
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    @wetcircuit It is not an onomatopoeia - it's from Old English hwisprian meaning to murmur.
    – corsiKa
    Nov 6, 2021 at 18:09
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    @corsiKa There was onomatopoeia in old english too. Having an etymology doesn't mean that something isn't onomatopoeic.
    – Hearth
    Nov 6, 2021 at 22:43
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    @Hearth just because there were onomatopoeia in Old English doesn't mean this was one of them. Whisper is a very poor example of onomatopoeia. Unless you're whispering the word "whisper", whispers don't sound like the word whisper. Murmur is because when you listen to a large crowd, they do sound like they're saying mur mur mur in a hushed tone. But the word "hwsiprian" sounds nothing like a murmur, and this whisper is not an onomatopoeia.
    – corsiKa
    Nov 7, 2021 at 21:52

3 Answers 3

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The "rule" is overhyped.

The important thing to remember is that you should not use "said" substitutes that are not actually special cases of "said." (This usually happens when people punctuate their action tags wrong, so that someone "smiled" the words.)

After that, it is wise to use "said" without good reason to not do so, particularly if the substitute does not describe something that the listener could hear. "She replied" can be inferred from context, and doesn't actually tell you how she said her reply.

"Whispered," however, is audible. Your character is actually hearing the whisper. The only big thing is to remember to use it when whispering actually moves the story forward, as opposed to stopping using "said."

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I've written 'replied', 'asked', 'called, 'muttered', 'gasped', 'bellowed', and various other dialogue tags. Since reading Stephen King's advice, and that of other people, I have changed the majority of these to 'said'. However, there are a few times when 'said' doesn't work. It is all right to say 'whispered' if this is the best word.

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Context and Description

Why is the character whispering? Fear of being discovered? Sultry seduction? Despair?

I suspect the value of the "use said" advice is that it forces you to make words like whispered unnecessary.

Her face went slack, grief evident. "No," she said softly, "that's not what I meant at all."

If I did that right, you read the line in a whisper.

She locked eyes with him, and he saw the fire there. She moved so close he could feel her lips move against his ear. "No," she said, "that's not what I meant at all."

And if I did that right, you read this line in a very different whisper.

It can be easy to use dialog tags as a crutch - to feel like we're doing a good job describing the scene because the tag is doing the work for us. The value in avoiding them is that it forces you to flesh out the scene.

All that said, I use tags other than "said" all the time.

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