Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.

Tags (like name tags) identify. A dialogue tag is band of words following quoted speech (e.g. ‘she said’), identifying who spoke and/or how 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 components of voice may also be important. It could be strange, for example, for a character to ‘sneer’ the words ‘I love you’, considering that the word ‘sneer’ connotes contempt which is contrary to love.

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

Not at all times. Here are a few strategies for using dialogue tags such as said and its own substitutes well:


1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly

The paper writer free problem with dialogue tags is they draw attention to the author’s hand. The greater we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the greater we’re alert to the author creating the dialogue. We see the author attributing who said what – it lays their guiding hand bare. Compare these two versions associated with the 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 towards the following:

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

“Well I wasn’t listening, was I!”

For many, it is a question of stylistic preference. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that the first version is better than the next. When you look at the second, making glaring an action instead of tethering it towards the 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 at first, we don’t have to add ‘I said’. The potency of the exclamation mark when you look at 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 fact it is only two words, conveys his tone therefore we can infer the type 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 way more

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

  • The average person emotional or mental states for the conversants
  • The degree of conflict or ease within the conversation
  • What the relationship is a lot like between characters (for example, if one character always snaps in the other this will 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 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:

  • A lot of 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 emotive dialogue tags for emphasis. For example if everything happens to be placid and a character suddenly gets a fright, here would 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 into the words themselves plus the dialogue tags. Yet the characters feel similar to talking heads in jars. Your characters have bodies, so don’t be afraid to make use of them. Compare these examples:

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

    “Well I hadn’t seriously considered it yet. The reality is now that I’ve had time I see that maybe it’s not likely 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 to your window.

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

    The dialogue is interspersed with setting in the second example. The way the characters build relationships the setting (the girl turning to handle the window, for example) reveals their emotions mid-dialogue. The movement and gesture conveys similar feelings towards the first dialogue example. Yet there’s a clearer sense 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. Utilize the content of what characters say, their movement, body language, pauses, and silences, to generate deeper, more layered exchanges.

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