Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.


Tags (like name tags) identify. A dialogue tag is selection of words following quoted speech (e.g. ‘she said’), identifying who spoke and/or the way they spoke. Other words for ‘said’ can indicate:

  • Volume (e.g. yelled, shouted, bellowed, screamed, whispered)
  • Pitch or tone(e.g. shrieked, groaned, squeaked)
  • Emotion (e.g. grumbled, snapped, sneered, begged)

The relation between these aspects of voice are also important. It would be strange, for instance, for a character to ‘sneer’ the text ‘I love you’, considering that the word ‘sneer’ connotes contempt which can be contrary to love.

Given that there are countless verbs that can substitute for ‘said,’ should you simply find a stronger, more emotive one and employ that?

Not at all times. Below are a few tips for using dialogue tags such as for instance said and its substitutes well:

1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly

The difficulty with dialogue tags is they draw attention to the hand that is author’s. The greater amount of we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the more we’re aware of the author creating the dialogue. We come across the author attributing who said what – it lays their hand that is guiding bare. Compare these two versions associated with the same conversation:

“I told you already,” I said, glaring.

“Well I wasn’t listening, was I!” he said.

“Apparently not,” he replied.

Now compare this into the following:

I glared at him. “I told you already.”

“Well I was listening that is n’t was I!”

For some, it is a question of stylistic preference. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that the first version is a lot better than the second. When you look at the second, making glaring an action in the place of tethering it into the dialogue gives us a stronger feeling of the characters as acting, fully embodied beings.

Because it’s clear the glaring first-person ‘I’ is the character speaking to start with, we don’t have to add ‘I said’. The effectiveness of the exclamation mark into the second character’s reply makes any dialogue tag showing emotion (e.g. ‘he snapped’) unnecessary. Given that it’s on a fresh line, and responds as to what the other said, we know it is a reply from context.

Similarly, within the speaker’s that is first, we don’t need a tag telling us his tone (that it’s curt, sarcastic, or hostile). The brevity, the fact it is only two words, conveys his tone and then essay helper we can infer the smoothness is still mad.

Using tags sparingly allows your reader the pleasure of imagining and inferring. Your reader extends to fill in the blank spaces, prompted more subtly because of the clues you leave (an exclamation mark or a pointed, cross phrase).

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2. Use ‘said’ sparingly, other words for said more so

The word ‘said’, like ‘asked’, gives no colour and personality to a character’s utterance. In conversation between characters, options for said can tell your reader:

  • The patient emotional or mental states of this conversants
  • The degree of ease or conflict in the conversation
  • What the relationship is like between characters (for example, if one character always snaps in the other this will show that the type is dominanting and perhaps unkind towards the other)

Here are dialogue words you can use instead of ‘said’, categorised because of the type or variety of emotion or scenario they convey:

Anger:

Shouted, bellowed, yelled, snapped, cautioned, rebuked.

Affection:

Consoled, comforted, reassured, admired, soothed.

Excitement:

Shouted, yelled, babbled, gushed, exclaimed.

Fear:

Whispered, stuttered, stammered, gasped, urged, hissed, babbled, blurted.

Determination:

Declared, insisted, maintained, commanded.

Happiness:

Sighed, murmured, gushed, laughed.

Sadness:

Cried, mumbled, sobbed, sighed, lamented.

Conflict:

Jabbed, sneered, rebuked, hissed, scolded, demanded, threatened, insinuated, spat, glowered.

Getting back together:

Apologised, relented, agreed, reassured, placated, assented.

Amusement

Teased, joked, laughed, chuckled, chortled, sniggered, tittered, guffawed, giggled, roared.

Storytelling:

Related, recounted, continued, emphasized, remembered, recalled, resumed, concluded.

Despite there being a great many other words for said, remember:

  • Too many will make your dialogue begin to feel just like a compendium of emotive speech-verbs. Use dialogue that is colourful for emphasis. They’re the salt and spice in dialogue, not the whole meal
  • Use emotive dialogue tags for emphasis. As an example if everything happens to be placid and a character suddenly gets a fright, here would be a good location for a shriek or a scream
  • One problem we often see in beginners’ dialogue is that every the emotion is crammed to the words themselves plus the dialogue tags. Yet the characters feel a little like talking heads in jars. Your characters have bodies, so be afraid to don’t utilize them. Compare these examples:

    “That’s not what you said yesterday,” she said, her voice implying she was retreating, withdrawing.

    “Well I hadn’t seriously considered it yet. The fact is now that I’ve had time I see that maybe it’s not going to work out. But let’s never be hasty,” he said, clearly planning to control her retreat, too.

    “That’s not what you said yesterday.” She hesitated, walked and turned towards the window.

    “Well I hadn’t seriously considered it yet.” He stepped closer. “The facts are now that’ I’ve had time I observe that maybe it is not going to work out. But let’s not be hasty.” He reached out to place a tactile hand regarding the small of her back.

    When you look at the second example, the dialogue is interspersed with setting. The way the characters build relationships the setting (the girl turning to handle the window, for instance) reveals their emotions mid-dialogue. The movement and gesture conveys similar feelings to your first dialogue example. Yet there’s a clearer sense of proximity and distance, of two characters dancing around each other’s words, thoughts and feelings.

    Vary the real way you show who’s speaking in your dialogue. Use emotive other words for said to season characters’ conversations. Yet seasoning shouldn’t overpower substance. Utilize the content of what characters say, their movement, body language, pauses, and silences, to generate deeper, more exchanges that are layered.

    Join Now Novel and acquire constructive feedback on your dialogue as you grow and improve.

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