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The Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags
by Anne M. Marble

Return to Writing Dynamic Dialogue · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"What happened to the word 'said'?" the editor shrieked as she read the manuscripts in the slush pile.

Today, a lot of authors think that the word "said" is boring. So they decide to substitute it with lots of different and exciting verbs. For example, right in the middle of an important love scene, they'll throw in something like this. He whispered, "Let me hold you."

That's all right, isn't it? Most of the time, it's not OK. Readers accept the words said and asked; in fact, they barely notice those words as they read. However, words such as "hollered" and "bawled" often draw their attention away from the dialogue and yank them out of the story.

Editors and critics often refer to melodramatic dialogue tags as "said bookisms." They know that these phrases give your story an amateurish look. Your readers might not know what the darn things are called, but chances are that they'll notice them, too. Especially if you use said bookisms every other line.

In most cases, the word "said" would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue. Avoid drowning your dialogue in phrases such as exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded, queried, thundered, whispered, and muttered. These words make it sound as if you have fallen in love with your thesaurus. If the dialogue is strong enough, "she said" and "he said" will do. If the dialogue is not strong enough, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said bookisms to bolster it.

You can use said bookisms once in a while. Think of them as those little silver candies you use for decorating cookies. If you put dozens of them on one cookie, the cookie looks silly and is hard to eat. Like the silver candies, use these phrases carefully and use them only on special occasions. Characters can occasionally shout or murmur something.

That said, you should still avoid said bookisms that sound too extreme, such as cried, shrieked, snarled, barked, growled, and sniffed. Is it really necessary for your heroine to "shriek" something to the hero or to "cry out" a plea to the villain? Probably not. Phrases like "She shrieked" make the heroine sound strident. Phrases like "He snarled" make the hero sound like the domineering "alpha heel" heroes that went out of style in the 1980s. Besides, when you start writing said bookisms that remind you of animal sounds, it's time to back away from the computer very slowly and take a break. These "extreme dialogue tags" make your story seem melodramatic, even silly.

Yes, I know, lots of best-selling authors use said bookisms, sometimes to excess. That doesn't mean it's all right to use them. That simply means they are so good at telling a story that can get away with it.

And of course, avoid the dialogue tag, "He ejaculated." At the very least, don't use that as a dialogue tag during a sex scene -- unless you want a laugh.

Put your energy into making sure your characters' words are strong enough, and you won't need to lean on the said bookisms.

"Get out," He Hissed: Dialogue Tags That Look Silly

Now let's go another step and explore said bookisms that should be avoided in almost all cases. Overly potent said bookisms can create the dialogue tags that are melodramatic.

If you decide to use a said bookism for a dialogue tag, make sure it's physically possible. Can somebody really laugh a line of dialogue? Or cry a sentence? Here's an example: "Go away," he laughed. Can he really speak that line while laughing? Maybe -- but it might be painful. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to use an action tag instead of a dialogue tag. For example: He laughed. "Go away."

Don't use a verb used to describe an expression and then try to force it into becoming a dialogue tag. It won't work. People don't grimace, grin, smile, and frown their sentences. Consider this line of dialogue: "You'll never get away from here," her evil guardian sneered. Even the most notorious villain doesn't know how to sneer a line of dialogue.

"But my villain has to sneer," the writer said. Of course. It's in his nature. So try this instead: The evil guardian sneered. "You'll never get away from here." Don't worry about the attribution. As long as the action is kept with its dialogue, the reader will figure out who said what.

The big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is "hissed." It's used a lot, but quite often, it's used where it's unwelcome. We've all seen this dialogue tag abused. For example: "Get out," she hissed. OK, you try it -- hiss that line. Something's missing -- the sibilants. I suppose the Snake Creatures of Tilolaca could hiss that line, but that's about it. Your characters shouldn't have to be forced to hiss their words.

Remember, the overuse of said bookisms will only serve to remind people that they are reading a story. If the person reading your story is an editor, yanking him or her out of the story can be fatal to your chance of making a sale.

"Run Away," He Said Evasively: Adverbial Dialogue Tags

Another problem that can trip up writers is the overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags. Do you remember those jokes called "Tom Swifties"? For example: "The temperature is going down," he said coolly. Those jokes were named after a series of boy's adventure books that became notorious for abusing adverbial dialogue tags.

What a way for a writer to be remembered! You don't want to be remembered as a writer who didn't know when to stop inserting adverbs into dialogue tags, do you? That's why you should drop adverbs into your dialogue tags with caution.

The first rule is to leave out the adverbial dialogue tag if it adds nothing to the dialogue. If the character's words are already angry, there is no need to insert the word "angrily" after the "she said" and "he said."

Conversely, the second rule is to use an adverbial dialogue tag when readers would be confused about how the dialogue is said. This is most often used when the dialogue is said with sarcasm or irony. Let's say somebody hands a subpoena to your heroine. And he responds with the following line of dialogue: "Thank you," she said. That doesn't tell me much. Was she grateful for the subpoena? Or was she being excessively civil? On the other hand, let's say she responds with the following line of dialogue: "Thank you," she said crossly. Ah-ha! That tells me a lot more.

One last note. Do not let your hero say something "cockily" during a love scene. Please. I'm not kidding here. I've seen that word used during a love scene, and the results weren't pretty. Do you really want your readers laughing hysterically during a passionate love scene? I didn't think so.

Find Out More...

Off with the Talking Heads! - Marg Gilks

Punctuating Dialogue - Marg Gilks

Who Speaks? Pointers about Attribution in Dialogue - Victoria Grossack

Copyright © 2001 Anne M. Marble.

Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.


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