Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.

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)
  • Tone or pitch (e.g. shrieked, groaned, squeaked)
  • Emotion (e.g. grumbled, snapped, sneered, begged)

The relation between these elements of voice may also be important. It will be strange, as an example, for a character to ‘sneer’ the words since the word ‘sneer’ connotes contempt which is contrary to love‘ I love you.

Considering that you can find countless verbs that can take the place of ‘said,’ should you simply find a stronger, more emotive one and use that?

Not always. Below are a few strategies for using dialogue tags such as for example said and its substitutes well:

1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly

The issue with dialogue tags is they draw awareness of the author’s hand. The greater we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the greater we’re aware of the author creating the dialogue. We see the writer attributing who said what – it lays their hand that is guiding bare. Compare these two best write my essay site versions associated with same conversation:

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

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

“Apparently not,” he replied.

Now compare this to 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 matter of stylistic preference. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that the first version is better than the second. In the second, making glaring an action in the place of tethering it to your dialogue gives us a stronger sense of the characters as acting, fully embodied beings.

Because it’s clear the glaring first-person ‘I’ may be the character speaking in the beginning, we don’t need 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. We know it’s a reply from context because it’s on a new line, and responds to what the other said.

Similarly, into the first speaker’s retort, we don’t need a tag telling us his tone (that it’s curt, sarcastic, or hostile). The brevity, the known fact it is only two words, conveys his tone and now we can infer the type continues to be mad.

Using tags sparingly allows your reader the pleasure of inferring and imagining. Your reader gets to fill in the blank spaces, prompted more subtly by 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, alternatives for said can tell the reader:

  • The patient mental or emotional states regarding the conversants
  • The amount of conflict or ease into the conversation
  • What the relationship is similar to between characters (for instance, if one character always snaps in the other this will show that the character is dominanting and perhaps unkind to the other)

Listed below are dialogue words you can make use of rather than ‘said’, categorised by the type or type 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.

Making up:

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 number of other words for said, remember:

  • Way too many can 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 dialogue that is emotive for emphasis. For instance if everything has been placid and a character suddenly gets a fright, here could be a good place for a shriek or a scream
  • One problem we often see in beginners’ dialogue is that most the emotion is crammed to the expressed words themselves therefore 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 thought about it yet. The stark reality is now that I’ve had time I observe that maybe it is not planning to work out. But let’s not be hasty,” he said, clearly planning to control her retreat, too.

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

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

    Into the second example, the dialogue is interspersed with setting. How the characters engage with the setting (the woman turning to handle the window, for instance) reveals their emotions mid-dialogue. The movement and gesture conveys similar feelings to the 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 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 create deeper, more exchanges that are layered.

    Join Now Novel and obtain constructive feedback on your dialogue while you grow and improve.

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