Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.

Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.

Tags (like name tags) identify. A dialogue tag is set 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)
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  • 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 could be strange, as an example, for a character to ‘sneer’ the text ‘I love you’, because the word ‘sneer’ connotes contempt which can be as opposed to love.

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

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

1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly

The situation with dialogue tags is they draw awareness of the hand that is author’s. The more we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the more we’re alert to the author creating the dialogue. We see the writer attributing who said what – it lays their hand that is guiding bare. Compare these two versions for 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 towards the following:

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

“Well I wasn’t listening, was I!”

For many, it is a case of stylistic preference. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that the first version is much better than the 2nd. In the second, making glaring an action in place of tethering it to your dialogue gives us a stronger feeling of the characters as acting, fully embodied beings.

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

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 so we can infer the smoothness continues to be mad.

Using tags sparingly allows your reader the pleasure of imagining and inferring. 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, options for said can tell your reader:

  • The person emotional or mental states associated with the conversants
  • The degree of ease or conflict into the conversation
  • What the connection is much like between characters (for example, if one character always snaps during the other this may show that the character is dominanting and maybe unkind to the other)

Listed here are dialogue words you should 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.

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:

  • Way too many will make your dialogue begin to feel just like a compendium of emotive speech-verbs. Use colourful dialogue tags 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 will 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 expressed words themselves and the dialogue tags. Yet the characters feel a little like talking heads in jars. Your characters have bodies, so don’t be afraid to use 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 reality is now that I’ve had time I see that maybe it’s not likely to work out. But let’s not be hasty,” he said, clearly planning to control her retreat, too.

    “That’s not what you said yesterday.” She hesitated, walked and turned to 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’s not planning to work out. But let’s never be hasty.” He reached off to place a hand on 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 to your 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 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. Make use of the content of what characters say, their movement, body language, pauses, and silences, to produce deeper, more layered exchanges.

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