Every writer aims to create pieces of sparkling, seamless dialogue, that captivates the reader, moves the story forward and rings with authenticity.
In this article, I will be illustrating how dialogue tags can be varied in writing to avoid repetition, improve the flow and pace of the story and shine a new light on characters.
I will also suggest techniques to improve conversation writing and show how easy it is to find better words for ‘said.’
What Is A Dialogue Tag?
Dialogue tags are phrases that are used to break up, precede or follow written dialogue to convey which character is speaking, making it easier for the reader to follow the conversation. The most common dialogue tag is the word ‘said.’
The use of dialogue tags makes it clear who is talking and what is being said and they also convey how a character is feeling. However, the constant use of the simple “he said/she said” dialogue tag can very soon become monotonous and bland.
So how can authors use alternative dialogue tags, so that repetitive dialogue can be avoided? And what alternative words are there to ‘said’?
To Adverb Or Not To Adverb?
There’s a lot of debate in the publishing and writing world on whether adverb speech tags, such as “he said quietly” or “she moaned gently”, should be used by writers. There’s a general school of thought that drawing attention to dialogue tags by using adverbs is defeating the purpose of what they should be there for.
For example, instead of writing:
“ ‘My goodness,’ Sally said with horror.”
Most writers would prefer to show, not tell. Instead, they may write:
“Sally’s eyes widened, and her hand flew to her mouth. ‘My goodness,’ she cried.”
We then know that the way she says ‘my goodness’ is very clearly with horror because of the actions she’s making.
Less Is More With Dialogue Tags
Speech tags should not be the main focus of writing, but simply a mechanical part of linking a story together by way of dialogue between characters.
Having said that, using well-thought-out dialogue tags to compliment characters, story and pace, can improve the overall rhythm of a story and give it that extra polish.
So where do dialogue tags play their part in dialogue? Well, they feature at the start of a piece of dialogue, in the middle of dialogue and at the end of the dialogue.
Here is an example for each:
Dialogue Tags At The Start Of Dialogue
A much more interesting way to use dialogue tags is at the start of a piece of dialogue. Instead of “Rose said, ‘I’m tired,'” it could be:
“Rose sighed. ‘I’m tired.’”
This takes away the need to use the word ‘said’ and shows how the character is feeling without having to use an adverb.
Dialogue Tags In The Middle Of Dialogue
Dialogue tags can also be inserted in the middle or at the end of a piece of dialogue too.
For example, in the middle of a sentence a dialogue tag could be, “‘Look at the weather,’ said Clive’s mother. ‘Awful!'”
“Said Clive’s mother” is an effective dialogue tag placed in the middle of a sentence. It is sandwiched between what Clive’s mother is saying and adds variety to the dialogue. However, this can be improved upon, by changing the word “said” to “groaned”, to convey her annoyance and disappointment at the weather.
Dialogue Tags At The End Of Dialogue
A dialogue tag incorporated at the end of a sentence is another option:
“I’m really tired,” he said.
“He said” is the dialogue tag at the end of this sentence. Alternatively, the writer could add a little more flavour, by changing the dialogue tag to read, “’I’m really tired,’ he whispered”, which conveys much more clearly how tired this particular character actually feels and is a much more emotive speech tag.
Using the tried and tested dialogue tag of “said” too often can become annoying and take over. There should be a fine balance between using dialogue tags and not. Sometimes they are not required at all if the conversation is conveyed in the correct way.
It helps to study the writing of brilliant authors and note how they use a mix of tags in different places to vary the rhythm of the writing.
Action Instead Of Dialogue Tags
To avoid over usage of dialogue tags, the author can implement action prior to a certain character speaking, so that the reader knows who is talking and recognises the tone in which they are speaking.
An example of this is:
“John slammed his hand down on the table. ‘Shut up!’”
Immediately, the reader recognises the frustration and anger in John and knows he is the character who has just ordered someone to shut up. The word “said” has not been used here as a speech tag, but the action of John slamming down his hand illustrates how angry he is and that it is he who is speaking.
Furthermore, by describing the voice in which an individual character is speaking (growled, snapped etc) the author can clarify who is saying what and how they are delivering the words, without having to resort to overuse of dialogue tags.
The clever and intuitive use of speech tags can also provide valuable and teasing clues for the reader, as to what this character who is speaking is really like under the veneer of bluster or smarminess.
This is where the show, don’t tell adage comes into play again. By fleshing out characters and their traits, a writer can make a character or characters express themselves through their actions, rather than the author having to literally spell it all out for the reader.
Discover more about writing dialogue in this Jericho Writers article, and this one on points of view.
Dialogue Tag Alternatives To ‘Said’
As mentioned before, the dialogue tag “said” to show a character is talking, is not the only dialogue tag option available to writers.
There are many other words for ‘said’ that authors can use in their work, which are better words than ‘said’ and which convey the tone, emotion and even physicality of a character. But do use them sparingly. In most cases ‘said’ or nothing at all reads a lot smoother.
Here are a few alternatives to ‘said’:
These are just some of the very many dialogue tag options out there, which are far more expressive than the word ‘said.’
Of course, authors are not at liberty (nor should they feel pressurised) into constantly using the likes of “moaned”’ and “sighed”, as this too would become annoying to write and to read, but for the sake of variety, it’s good to mix things up a little when writing conversation.
Recognising A Character Via Their Speech Patterns
Sometimes you don’t even need to say who is speaking in your dialogue because the way they speak is evident enough.
An author may have a character who has a predilection for swearing or who has an annoying habit of throwing Latin phrases into their sentences. For a character like this, their way of speaking is so unique the reader will know it’s them speaking without the need for as many speech tags.
Adding Rhythm And Action Beats
Speech tags also provide a natural pause to the conversation – which is reflective of the natural, melodic speech patterns we use in real life that a writer should want to create in their work.
It’s also important to consider what a character is doing during dialogue. Using more descriptive dialogue tags, such as yelled, hollered, bawled etc, allows a peek into their motivation, nature and traits. This is where action beats come in (what a character is doing as they speak).
Here’s an example of an action beat:
“The man strode up to the bar and banged down his pint glass. ‘It’s empty. Fill it.’”
The striding up to the bar and the banging down of the pint glass are what the character is doing as he speaks. The striding and the banging indicate his fiery mood, as well as the short, rude delivery of demanding to have his glass refilled.
Such description can certainly play a part in strengthening a piece of dialogue or scene and is a lot more effective than writing “It’s empty. Fill it,” he said. Or even “It’s empty. Fill it,” he said, angrily. This is why most authors prefer action beats over adverbs.
My Top Tip For Writing Authentic Dialogue
The key to using successful dialogue tags is to endeavour to create a natural-sounding conversation between characters, which could be overheard anywhere, in any pub, home or street. There should be a lyrical fluency to it, with speech tags used to enhance the scenes, and not inhibit them. Therefore it’s important to experiment with a variety of speech tags so that the writing flows and doesn’t become two dimensional or stilted.
The best way to ensure your dialogue sounds natural is to read it aloud and listen out for any awkward or clumsy dialogue tags. Sometimes it even helps to act out what you are saying so you know where to add actions or certain expressions.
So Many Different Ways To Say ‘Said’
By channelling characters, their mannerisms and the way they deliver their words, and by using a variety of dialogue tags, you will be able to not only convey who is speaking but how, why and when. It cannot be underestimated that the benefits of using effective, imaginative and alternative dialogue tags in the right context, can bring drama, colour and clarification to dialogue writing.
And, if you’re not sure what to write, remember there’s nothing wrong with a nice and simple ‘said’.
As the very successful author, Diana Gabaldon, famously said:
“Don’t go overboard in avoiding the word ‘said.’ Basically, ‘said’ is the default for dialogue, and a good thing, too; it’s an invisible word that doesn’t draw attention to itself.”
And that’s all that has to be said (explained, outlined, expressed, noted) about writing dialogue tags. I hope this article has helped make your dialogue more interesting, authentic and natural, and that you are now a lot more confident about how, when and what your characters are saying!
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