Is it your dream, your fantasy to write a bestseller? Do you have a book in your head, but the word “said” keeps getting in the way? If we write, then somewhere along the line we’ll run into the word “said,” one of the most common dialogue tags. But what is a dialogue tag, you ask?
In writing, a dialogue tag is a group of words that follow a line of speech. They provide information about the words between the beginning and end quotation marks such as
- Who is speaking (i.e. he, she, they, Danny, Lucy)
- Volume (i.e. shouted, yelled, whispered)
- Tone (i.e. moaned, babbled, howled)
By using dialogue tags, writers are able to explain to readers the way in which their characters are speaking and the emotions that should be inferred from the inflection of their words.
Repeating “he said, she said,” can get annoying, but is it smart to use a different verb? There are abundant words to use instead, yet purists believe you’re probably best not using them, since readers pay such little attention to “said” it effectively becomes invisible.
A good practice to follow is that when it’s understandable who is speaking the line of dialogue, you can remove the verb completely. It’s surprising how much more professional your work will look if you do. In fact, let’s make a rule: if it’s obvious who’s speaking, don’t use anything.
You should only substitute “said” if the line of dialogue needs accentuation or verbalization to convey the way the words are expressed. Gorging your story with alternative words for “said” makes your work look amateurish, so be sure to se alternatives with moderation.
But sometimes you need to indicate who’s speaking, and sometimes the word “said” doesn’t quite do the job. That being said, if you’re struggling to find that elusive and perfect substitute, here’s a list of words (categorized by emotion) that might help.
Accepted, acknowledged, admitted, affirmed, agreed, assumed, conferred, confessed, confirmed, justified, settled, understood, undertook, verified.
Accused, barked, bellowed, bossed, carped, censured, condemned, criticized, demanded, fumed, gawped, glowered, growled, grumbled, hissed ordered, raged, remonstrated, reprimanded, retorted, scoffed, scolded, seethed, snapped, snarled, ticked off, told off, upbraided.
Contemplated, mused, pondered.
Addressed, advertised, articulated, bragged, commanded, confided, decided, dictated, ended, exacted, finished, informed, made known, maintained, necessitated, pointed out, promised, reassured, remarked, repeated, reported, specified, stated, told.
Attracted, requested, wanted.
Babbled, beamed, blurted, broadcasted, burst, cheered, chortled, chuckled, cried out, crooned, crowed, declared, emitted, exclaimed, giggled, hollered, howled, interjected, jabbered, laughed, praised, preached, presented, proclaimed, professed, promulgated, quaked, ranted, rejoiced, roared, screamed, shouted, shrieked, swore, thundered, trilled, trumpeted, vociferated, wailed, yawped, yelled, yelped, yowled.
Cautioned, shuddered, trembled, warned.
Comforted, consoled, empathized, invited, offered, proffered, released, volunteered.
Advised, alleged, appealed, asserted, assured, avered, avowed, beckoned, begged, beseeched, cajoled, claimed, conceded, concluded, concurred, contended, defended, disposed, encouraged, entreated, held, hinted, implied, implored, importuned, inclined, indicated, insisted, pleaded, postulated, premised, presupposed, protested, stressed, suggested, touted, urged, vouched for, wheedled.
Chimed in, circulated, disseminated, distributed, expressed, grinned, made public, passed on, publicized, published, put forth, put out, quipped, quizzed, quoted, reckoned that, required, requisitioned, taunted, teased.
Exposed, imitated, joked, leered, lied, mimicked, mocked, provoked.
Agonized, bawled, blubbered, grieved, groaned, lamented, mewled, mourned, puled, sobbed, wept.
Announced, answered, began, called, commented, continued, denoted, disclosed, divulged, explained, imparted, noted, observed, proposed, rejoined, replied, revealed, shared, solicited, sought, testified, transferred, transmitted, went on.
Asked, doubted, faltered, fretted, guessed, hesitated, hypothesized, inquired, lilted, quavered, queried, questioned, shrugged, speculated, stammered, stuttered, supposed, trailed off, wondered.
Words That Indicate Sound
Breathed, choked, croaked, drawled, echoed, grunted, keened, moaned, mumbled, murmured, panted, sang, sniffled, sniveled, snorted, spluttered, squeaked, uttered, voiced, whimpered, whined, whispered.
When writing an inquisitive character, sometimes the standard “asked” can become a bit stale. Try using these alternatives when you want to add some variety to your dialogue.
Instead of repeatedly using stated to express the way in which a character delivers their words, try using one of these more descriptive alternatives.
Okay, so despite the warning, you’ve decided you really need to use one of the words above for “said.” In order to make your writing absolutely zing, you might want to go whole hog and add an adverb or a phrase to convey or emphasize exactly how the line of dialogue was said.
An adverb is a word ending in –ly and modifies a verb.
The way it works is you choose whichever word for “said” you fancy from the list above, then add a adverb or phrase after it from the list below. For example, “She promised, with a controlled smile,” or “He remarked, with a gloomy sigh.” But do not overdo it. Be very careful not to end up sounding amateurish.
- Abruptly, Absently, Acidly, Angrily, Apologetically, Approvingly, Artfully
- Calmly, Caustically, Cheerfully, Complacently, Crossly
- Depressingly, Dryly
- Earnestly, Enthusiastically
- Gently, Gruffly
- Happily, Hotly
- Impatiently, Indulgently, Informed sassily, Innocently, Inquired doubtfully, Irritably
- Loftily, Loudly
- Mentally shrugged
- Naturally, Nodded agreeably, Not wanting to sound pushy, Noncommittally
- Offhandedly, Optimistically
- Pleasantly, Politely, Politely smooth, Promised in a motherly/fatherly way, Prompted gently Promptly,
- Reflectively, Roughly
- Sadly, Sympathetically, Sarcastically, Sincerely, Smiled faintly, Smugly, Soberly, Softly, Sparingly, Sternly,
- Tartly, Tautly, Teased softly, Tightly, Truthfully, Thoughtfully,
- Uncertainly, Unexpectedly, Urgently
- Went on loyally, Wilfully misunderstood, Without sounding unduly curious, Wryly
“She said in a…”
Casual tone, chiding tone, courteous manner, curious tone, dry tone, flirtatious way, level tone, level way, perpetually tired voice, rasping tone, small panicky voice, soothing tone, voice soft with affection.
“She said with a…”
Controlled smile, fond look, gloomy sigh, note of relief, sad grimace, sad smile, sense of guilt, sigh of irritation, burgeoning excitement.
“She said with…”
Conviction, determination, fire, firm persistence, gentle remonstrance, graceful simplicity, mock astonishment, pleasure, quiet empathy, simple directness.
Other Phrases to Modify “Said”
- After a moment’s reflection
- False cheerfulness
- Friendly fashion
- In quiet amazement
- Made the effort to sound reassuring
- Meaning the words more seriously than they sounded
- Sounded slightly brittle
Below is Stephen King’s take on the use of adverbs. His advice is to use adverbs very conservatively in order to keep the integrity of your writing intact.
“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.
I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:
‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:
‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.”
— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft
Since the use of adverbs can often make a writer look amateurish, many choose to use actions instead of adverbs to express emotion. Take, for example, the scenario below, in which a man is feeling frustrated and angry upon learning that his girlfriend has been unfaithful. In the first example, adverbs are used. In the second, actions.
“Where were you all night?” he asked.
“I was with someone else,” she mumbled nervously.
“Someone else?” he boomed violently. “Someone else?”
“Where were you all night?” he asked.
“I was with someone else,” she replied with her eyes downcast. She was fiddling with her fingernails.
“Someone else?” he said, slamming the table with his fist. “Someone else?”
It’s easy to see that in most exchanges of dialogue, less is more. Let your reader imagine the actions the characters are making and infer the emotions those actions suggest, rather than telling them the emotion outright.