Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.

Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements.

Tags (like name tags) identify. A dialogue tag is number 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)
  • Tone or pitch (e.g. shrieked, groaned, squeaked)
  • Emotion (e.g. grumbled, snapped, sneered, begged)

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

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

Not always. Here are a few methods 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 hand that is author’s. The more we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the greater we’re aware of the author creating the dialogue. We come across the writer attributing who said what – it lays their guiding hand bare. Compare these two versions associated with 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 wasn’t listening, was I!”

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

Since it’s clear the glaring first-person ‘I’ could be the character speaking at first, we don’t need certainly to add ‘I said’. The effectiveness of the exclamation mark when you look at the second character’s reply makes any dialogue tag showing emotion (e.g. ‘he snapped’) unnecessary. Because it’s on an innovative new line, and responds as to what the other said, we know it is a reply from context.

Similarly, into 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’s only two words, conveys his tone and now we can infer the type is still mad.

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

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

Listed below are dialogue words you can make use of rather than ‘said’, categorised because of the variety of emotion or scenario they convey:


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


Consoled, comforted, reassured, admired, soothed.


Shouted, yelled, babbled, gushed, exclaimed.


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


Declared, insisted, maintained, commanded.


Sighed, murmured, gushed, laughed.


Cried, mumbled, sobbed, sighed, lamented.


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

Making up:

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


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


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

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

  • Way too many could make your dialogue begin 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 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 all the emotion is crammed to 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 thought about it yet. The fact is given that I’ve had time I observe that maybe it is not likely to work out. But let’s not be hasty,” he said, clearly wanting to control her retreat, too.

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

    “Well I hadn’t thought about it yet.” He stepped closer. “The truth is now that’ I’ve had time I see 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.

    When you look at the second example, the dialogue is interspersed with setting. How the characters engage with the setting (the girl turning to handle the window, for example) reveals their emotions mid-dialogue. The movement and gesture conveys similar feelings to the customwriting first dialogue example. Yet there’s a clearer feeling 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. Use the content of what characters say, their movement, body language, pauses, and silences, to produce deeper, more exchanges that are layered.

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