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. essay writer grumbled, snapped, sneered, begged)

The relation between these components of voice are also important. It would be strange, for example, for a character to ‘sneer’ the text since the word ‘sneer’ connotes contempt which is contrary to love‘ I love you.

Given that you can find countless verbs that will substitute for ‘said,’ in the event you simply find a stronger, more emotive one and make use of that?

Not necessarily. Check out tips for using dialogue tags such as for example said and its own substitutes well:

1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly

The issue with dialogue tags is they draw focus on the author’s hand. The greater we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the more we’re alert to the writer creating the dialogue. We come across the author attributing who said what – it lays their guiding hand bare. Compare these two versions for the conversation that is same

“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 many, it is a matter of stylistic preference. Even so, it is hard to argue that the version that is first a lot better than the next. When you look at the second, making glaring an action in place of tethering it into the dialogue gives us a stronger sense of the characters as acting, fully embodied beings.

Because it’s clear the glaring first-person ‘I’ is the character speaking at first, we don’t want to add ‘I said’. The potency of the exclamation mark within the character that is second 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, when you look at 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 known fact it’s only two words, conveys his tone and then we can infer the smoothness is still mad.

Using tags sparingly allows your reader the pleasure of inferring and imagining. Your reader extends to fill out 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 personality and colour to a character’s utterance. In conversation between characters, alternatives for said can tell the reader:

  • The person mental or emotional states of the conversants
  • The amount of conflict or ease when you look at the conversation
  • What the connection is similar to between characters (for example, if one character always snaps at the other this may show that the smoothness is dominanting as well as perhaps unkind to the other)

Listed here are dialogue words you can use rather than ‘said’, categorised by the sort 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:

  • Too many could make your dialogue start to feel like a compendium of emotive speech-verbs. Use colourful dialogue tags for emphasis. They’re the salt and spice in dialogue, not the meal that is whole
  • Use dialogue that is emotive for emphasis. For instance 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 most the emotion is crammed to the words themselves and also the dialogue tags. Yet the characters feel a little like talking heads in jars. Your characters have bodies, so don’t be afraid to make use of 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 simple truth is now that I’ve had time I note that maybe it is not likely to work out. But let’s never be hasty,” he said, clearly wanting to control her retreat, too.

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

    “Well I hadn’t thought about 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 off to place a hand in the small of her back.

    The dialogue is interspersed with setting in the second example. The way the characters engage with the setting (the girl turning to face the window, for example) reveals their emotions mid-dialogue. The movement and gesture conveys similar feelings into the first dialogue example. Yet there’s a clearer feeling of proximity and distance, of two characters dancing around each words that are other’s 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. Use the content of what characters say, their movement, body language, pauses, and silences, to create deeper, more exchanges that are layered.

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