Writing Dialogue, Part Two: The Power of Said

In Part One of this series we discussed the ideal placement of the dialogue tag. Part Two begins analyzing the guts of the tag, specifically the use of said. I’ll quote Stephen King from his excellent book, On Writing:  “. . . while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” Now, I won’t be going into adverbs until Part Three, but the truth in the latter part of this quote deserves its own focus.

Anecdote time: When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had the class do a brainstorming project where we were to come up with as many words as possible to replace said in a dialogue tag, and were encouraged to use this variety in our writing. My fifth-grade mind thought that was a great idea; my grown-up writer/editor mind pictures The Scream painting by Edvard Munch. Variety is good in writing, but there is a time and a place for it.

Examples of decent variety in dialogue tags would be things like whispered, shouted, or mumbled. I list these because it can be difficult to use context or description to convey the style of speaking to the reader. However, it can be done, and can even bring more descriptive qualities to the scene in which the dialogue is taking place.

Consider this first example:

“We have to keep this a secret,” Sam whispered. “It could get us in trouble.”

There’s really nothing wrong with this quote, but we can revise it slightly:

Sam lowered his voice to a whisper. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”


Sam leaned closer to Julie’s ear. “We have to keep this a secret. It could get us in trouble.”

Both of these revisions remove the tag altogether. The first one still states that the words were whispered, but it is used more like a noun rather than a verb. But verbs are great, you might say. They convey action! Indeed, but let’s use that verb action differently, such as in the last revision. Sam leaning in to Julie’s ear shows the reader what the characters are doing and can infer that the words are spoken in a whisper because he is so close. Readers are smart like that.

Let’s also look at some examples of how to do similar tricks with shouted and mumbled dialogue:

“I’m going crazy!” Dave shouted. –> Dave took a deep breath and tugged at his hair. “I’m going crazy!”

Not only do we see Dave showing his exasperation, but the exclamation point is what does the shouting for us.

“This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Emma mumbled. –> Looking away, Emma kept her voice low. “This is the worse idea I’ve ever heard.”

In this example, we see Emma’s reaction and are prepared for her tone of voice before she speaks.

If you find yourself wanting to use verbs other than said, consider whether you can use descriptive action to replace the tag. If your dialogue and the surrounding prose are strong enough, then said is all you need. In Part Three I’ll dive into adverbs in dialogue tags, and how to avoid the urge to use them.

Writing Dialogue, Part One: Dialogue Tag Placement

Dialogue is a huge driving force in fiction writing. It helps with character development, giving each person a unique voice, and is an easy way to “show, not tell.” In Part One of a four-part series, I discuss the placement of dialogue tags, or the statements of who is speaking. It may not sound like something important, but in fact it is actually crucial.

Writers developing their stories always know who is speaking, but do the readers? Consider this example:

“I apologize. I was distracted. Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long,” John said a little stiffly.

Not only do we not know who is speaking until the end of the five-sentence paragraph, but also how it was spoken. As we read, we may not have had the character speak with a stiff tone, but rather a sincere once. Or maybe we read it as if a completely different character was speaking. Some readers might then be inclined to reread the paragraph in the “correct” way.

Let’s revise this to make it clearer:

“I apologize. I was distracted,” John said a little stiffly. “Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long.”

Now we know the who and the how of this piece of dialogue right away. The rest of the lines after the tag read smoother, and readers can focus on the character’s voice and how it relates to the story.

Another scenario in which the placement of the dialogue tag is imperative is when more than two people are speaking. With just two characters conversing it is easy to alternate the lines without tags and the reader can follow without a problem. Throw in more people and you’ll get something like the following example where four characters are talking:

“Look up,” said Kit.

“Look up?”

“Scorpions will cling to walls and ceilings and drop down on you suddenly,” Nance said.

“Ooh. That’s bad.”  Sophie was shivering with dread.

“Relax. Enjoy the ride. See how the trees are covered with golden blossoms. They’ll blanket everything with their blossoms and pollen for a month.”

“Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

“It’s everywhere in the Territory.  Part of the region’s charm, really.”

By context of the previous paragraphs not shown here, the second line is known to be spoken by Sophie, so no tag is needed there. We can also correctly deduce that the fifth line is spoken by Nance. However, we cannot easily figure out who is addressing Ben. The tone of the sentence doesn’t quite fit the frightened Sophie, and Nance just spoke the line before. So, is it Kit? Did Sophie say it to change the subject? We need a tag to know for sure.

After I queried the author, he chose to add a very simple tag that prevents the story from falling off the tracks:

Kit said, “Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

When writing dialogue, consider the reader’s ability to follow along. If there is any doubt of who might be speaking, find a way to make it clear.

In Part Two of this series, I’ll talk more about dialogue tags and how to keep them simple, yet strong.