Writing effective, compelling dialogue has multiple elements. It’s not only what characters say but how they say it that matters. Read other words for said as well as tips for keeping your dialogue natural and engrossing:
What is a ‘dialogue tag’?
Tags (like name tags) identify.
In written conversation or dialogue, a tag is a group of words following quoted speech (e.g. ‘she said’). It identifies who spoke and/or the tone or emotion behind their speech. Words for ‘said’ may show or suggest:
- Volume (e.g. yelled, shouted, bellowed, screamed, whispered)
- Tone or pitch (e.g. shrieked, groaned, squeaked)
- Emotion (e.g. grumbled, snapped, sneered, begged)
- Intent (e.g. suggested, asked, demanded)
The connotations of dialogue tags are important. It would be strange, for example, for a character to ‘sneer’ the words ‘I love you’, since the word ‘sneer’ connotes contempt rather than affection. Unless their words ran counter to how they truly felt. Even then, this would maybe need additional, clarifying narration.
Given that there are countless verbs that can take the place of ‘said,’ should you simply find a stronger, more emotive one and use that?
Not always. ‘He said’ and ‘she said’ are often preferable because they do not draw the reader’s attention to the fact they are reading written dialogue. They let characters’ words do the emoting.
Read more in our complete guide to dialogue.
Here are some tips for using dialogue tags such as said and synonyms for said well:
How to use said and its synonyms well:
- Use all dialogue tags sparingly
- Use said or other tags only where necessary
- Show how people speak using action and gesture
1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly
The problem with dialogue tags is they draw attention to the author’s hand. The more we read ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, the more we’re aware of the author creating the dialogue.
Novel writing coach Romy Sommer says of dialogue:
Keep it as tight as possible, and move as quickly as possible into the purpose of the conversation.
Romy Sommer in ‘Writing dialogue: What to avoid’, webinar preview here.
Whenever you read the author attributing who said what, it reminds us a narrative convention is being used.
Compare these two versions of the same conversation:
“I told you already,” I said, glaring.
“Well I wasn’t listening, 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 authors, it’s a matter of stylistic preference.
Even so, it’s hard to argue that the first version is better than the second. In the second, making glaring an action rather than tethering it to the dialogue gives us a stronger sense of the scene. A stronger sense of dialogue’s ‘back and forth’.
Because it’s clear the glaring first-person ‘I’ is the character speaking at first, we don’t need to add ‘I said’. The strength of the exclamation mark in the second character’s reply makes any dialogue tag showing emotion (e.g. ‘he snapped’) unnecessary. Because it’s on a new line, and responds to what the other said, we know it’s a reply from context.
Similarly, in the first speaker’s retort, 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. We can infer the character is still mad.
Using dialogue tags sparingly allows your reader the pleasure of inferring and imagining.Tweet This
The reader gets to fill in the blank spaces, prompted more subtly by the clues you leave (an exclamation mark or a pointed, cross remark).
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2. Use said or other tags only where necessary
The word ‘said’, like ‘asked’, does not tell you anything about the emotion behind a character’s words. Often, this is preferable, letting the character’s emotion or tone show in their precise choice of words, phrasing, movement (more on this below) or gestures.
In conversation between characters, alternatives for said can tell the reader:
- The individual emotional or mental states of the conversants
- The degree of conflict or ease in the conversation
- What the relationship is like between characters (for example, if one character always snaps at the other this will show that the character is short-tempered and perhaps unkind towards the other)
Here are dialogue words you can use instead of ‘said’, categorised by the kind 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.
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 many other words for said, remember to use dialogue tags and ‘said’ synonyms only where necessary:
- Is it clear who’s speaking? (E.g. There are only two characters in the scene and the first to speak is clear). If yes, you don’t need a tag
- Too many tags make your dialogue start to feel like a compendium of emotive speech-verbs. Use colourful dialogue tags occasionally, for emphasis. They’re the salt and spice in dialogue, not the whole meal
- Use emotive dialogue tags for the peaks and valleys of a scene. If a character screams or declares every line, your reader may become irritated by the constant visibility of the author’s hand
Over at The Write Practice, Kellie McGann takes a look at dialogue tags and how to use them effectively in your writing.
3. Show how people speak using action and gesture
One problem we often see in beginners’ dialogue is that all the emotion is crammed into either spoken words or dialogue tags.
Characters who never move or gesture in dialogue may read a little like talking heads in jars (like the satirical preserved famous figures in the sci-fi comedy Futurama).
Your characters likely do have bodies, so don’t be afraid to use them. Compare these examples:
“That’s not what you said yesterday,” she said, her voice implying she was retreating, withdrawing.
“Well I hadn’t thought about it yet. The truth is now that I’ve had time I see that maybe it’s not going 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, turned and walked to 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’s not going to work out. But let’s not be hasty.” He placed his hand on the small of her back.
In the second example, the dialogue is interspersed with setting. How the characters engage with the setting (the woman turning to face the window, for example) reveals their emotions mid-dialogue.
Movement and gesture conveys similar feelings to the first dialogue example. Yet there’s a clearer sense of proximity and distance, of two characters dancing around each other’s words, thoughts, feelings and personal space. It is appropriate too, to the situation (the end of an intimate relationship).
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 create deeper, more layered exchanges.
Join a concise, self-study four-week course to learn how to write dialogue that builds character and plot without needing 500 words for said.
432 replies on “Dialogue words: Other words for ‘said’ (and what to avoid)”
Sorry. This is totally wrong. Said and asked disappear in the readers mind. Adding synonyms to those brings the reader out of the narrative. Everything I’ve read on dialogue states not to do this. Make the dialogue show what the character is saying. Or have the character do something.
“It’s just that.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “We’ve been fighting a lot.”
It may be a differnent teaching in other countries, but here in the states every book I’ve read says to only use said. And ask where appropriate.
Like every single bit of writing advice that tells you to ALWAYS do x or NEVER do y it needs to be taken in moderation. There are times when it is appropriate to use something other than said or asked, much of the time it is not. The trick is learning to recognize those times.
Yes, the trick is to choose the best possible way to get the meaning across to the reader while considering genre expectations and not relying on any one technique or repeating too much. Don’t be afraid to break rules and don’t ignore them completely either.
That’s spot-on, Conrad. The way dialogue is crafted should fall naturally on the ear since it is mimicking speech and sometimes tags are a distraction which is why many authors do away with them entirely and use actions more, as Alice suggested. It’s interesting how everyone has such a strong opinion on this subject. If you are going to use tags at all, it is useful to be aware of the many alternatives and the subtle and not-so-subtle connotations they carry, at least.
I have to agree with you, Alice, and thanks for pointing that out. Reading all of those different attributions (chortled, shouted, exclaimed, replied, inquired, ejaculated, etc.) in a text makes me close the book and pick up another. It’s such a distraction from the forward momentum of the story. Furthermore, the problem is exactly that using these other attributions constitutes TELLING, which is just the opposite of the “show, don’t tell” rule of reader engagement.
And agreed with Conrad, as well, that everything must be taken in moderation, but the ultimate goal of every rule (or of breaking a rule) has to be keeping the reader engaged in the story. The first second the reader disengages from the story, you should have followed that rule (or not broken it in the first place). Attributions like these cause me to disengage from any writing.
Thanks for raising those points, Eleanore. Sometimes telling is useful and even necessary (as Ursula K. Le Guin argues in an interesting article on her personal website) but you’re right that dialogue tags, if used excessively (and for some readers, at all) can be a deterrent. A lot depends on frequency of use, genre (some genres are more amenable to dialogue tags than others) and so on.
Thanks for your reply! I have to admit that after having posted my thoughts yesterday, I remembered that when I’m reading books written by authors like Austen and Dickens, I don’t mind the varied attributions so much. Somehow, stylistically, things like “ejaculated” and “replied” and “murmured” seem to fit better in that kind of historical, sweeping literary style.
I did have another thought on the subject, in general. As a freelance editor for fiction writers, I’ve seen a lot of the use of words like “sighed” and “laughed” and “chuckled” (etc.) in dialogue (e.g., “I can’t understand it,” she sighed). Those words in particular drive me crazy. Has anyone ever actually tried to “chuckle” speech? Or “sigh” words? You can sigh before or after speaking, but not as speech. Similarly, you can laugh before, in the middle of, or after having spoken, but you can’t laugh speech. Perhaps it’s more those attributions to which I find myself *really* objecting! 🙂
Hi Alice – thanks for contributing a different viewpoint. I think it’s more a question of repetition perhaps – after the tenth ‘asked’ or ‘said’ in a scene, it starts to stand out and become a little tedious for some. Many literary writers do away with dialogue tags entirely, possibly partly for this reason, relying on context and the reader’s interpretation of other markers (e.g. characters’ differing personalities and ways of expressing themselves) to work out who is saying what. You’re right that actions are excellent for subtly conveying tone and emotion. A lot does depend on the genre and the age of the intended audience, as younger readers might not have quite as variegated perception of what these different bodily gestures suggest.
Thanks for stimulating debate on this subject. It’s quite a subjective topic.
I agree with Alice. I once read a book in which the author used every word BUT “said” and “asked”… and I *hated* that book. The writing came off as amateur, and it seemed as though the author had done this just to sound smarter. Ironically, in most cases, the tag didn’t even make sense, because it didn’t actually have anything to do with vocalization, nor do many of the suggestions above. And it’s true — words like this detract from the dialogue… Because that’s all I remember about the book are those horrible tags. This is, in my opinion, lazy writing. There are much stronger ways to convey what a person is thinking, doing, feeling, etc.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Krysten. It is a fine line between using dialogue tags in places to avoid ambiguity of expression and overusing them and coming across amateurish, as you say. Alice’s suggestion of using actions instead of tags is another discussion but is a very effective way to keep the author’s presence in the text less obtrusive.
yeah, I agree with the others. I don’t think this is great advice. Favoring colorful alternatives to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ is just distracting and comes off as amateurish in my opinion. What trumps everything is clarity in the reader’s mind. Don’t use ‘said’ and then go on to describe how the character pounded the desk and his words echoed until they rang in everyone’s ears–use ‘shouted’. But for heaven’s sake, don’t use words like mused, sighed, and cajoled just for the sake of changing it up and keeping it fresh. I don’t think there’s a great risk of word fatigue if you use ‘said’. Better yet, use nothing at all if you can get away with it.
Good advice, Matt. It does depend (as you say) on whether using a dialogue tag will avoid unnecessary and cliched action description or whether it is better to make actions or simple word choice convey the shifting emotions, tensions and resolutions in a piece of dialogue. I think avoiding ‘gimmicky’ use of any device or technique is always wise. Thanks for contributing your perspective to the discussion.
You don’t need to use “asked” because if the dialogue ends with a question mark, it’s obvious. I agree with Alice on this. “Said” disappears for the reader, whereas “grumbled,” etc. jumps out. Let the dialogue and action show the character’s state of mind. Tags help the reader keep straight who is talking if there are multiple people in the scene. But you can do away with many of them by just using action instead of the word “said.”
You both raise a good point, Diane. Dialogue tags are definitely controversial. As always, it’s up to the writer to do as she (or he) feels is best. There will be readers who like emphatic dialogue tags and readers who loathe them. A lot depends on genre, but you’re right that they can draw too much attention to the construction/craftedness of the text.
Also, it’s not necessary to use a dialogue tag after every line of dialogue. Once the writer has set up who is speaking, she can skip several lines of dialogue before adding another tag, which at that point can be action. There’s a fine balance between too many tags and too few.
You’re right there. A lot of this is a matter of balance. Dialogue is something where many trip up because it’s a constant measuring and deciding between getting the natural patterns of speech right (so that the reader’s ear doesn’t vehemently disagree) and making choices around the fact that it is given to the reader textually, not aurally.
The magic of using said is that it doesn’t jump out at the reader. Writers who use a wide variety of dialog tags feel like they are trying too hard.
Good point, Jeri! I’m loving the spirited debate everyone is having here. Of course everything should be used in moderation, and I think there are certain genres where colourful dialogue tags are more the norm (and norms must of course be questioned and examined) than others. Thanks for your perspective.
I’m glad to see someone finally come out against the fallacy that “said/asked” are better because they “disappear” in the test and don’t “jolt” the reader. After years of only using beats (which take up much more space) or inserting descriptions of tone while desperately trying not to be cliche, I’ve found that bookisms and adverbs get the correct intent across with a minimum of words or fuss. The tag “he asked sharply” will not jolt the reader. It will allow the reader to picture and hear the scene correctly — and enjoy the novel more. Great post!
Thank you, Lexa. Glad you enjoyed reading it. I like that everyone commenting has strong feelings one way or the other on the topic of dialogue tags. I think it all depends on genre. Definitely in more ‘literary’ fiction obtrusive dialogue tags are less common. I think they can richness, especially for younger readers. So much depends on audience.
I was taught the opposite. Most craft books I’ve read say “said” is invisible, while “fancy tags” call attention to themselves. So we’re supposed to use such devices sparingly, only when the way things are said isn’t implicit in the words or context. Some (Elmore Leonard) go even further, and claim no tag but said should EVER be used, which seems excessive in the other direction. I was also taught that tags that can’t actually be spoken, like “stormed” or “coughed” are signs of amateur writing.
Having said this, I think “florid” tags can work for some voices or styles. I don’t think Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have been as as funny without its “gushing” doors and “opining” androids.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, E.L. You’re right that tags that can’t be said or voiced in some way are not ideal. At the same time you’re also right that it’s a stylistic/genre matter. A lot of fantasy writers (particularly those writing for YA/middle school audiences) use more florid, as you say, tags. A lot is down to taste, but there are some (ab)uses that are more commonly disliked than others.
Great series – Douglas Adams is hilarious.
Thanks, Bridget for this update.Certainly, the speech about the couple as has been rewritten in the update comes across as very well written. It beats the other two. It has the quality of clarity as it is more vivid. Of course, it is also more interesting. I’ll go for this style any day.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you for contributing your perspective, Ohita.
I been reading your “dialogues” post. I write in spanish. And for be honest, the advise we receive from people is used “said” not particullary another words. Why? the reason they explaine is when you write “he asked, he questioned, he explained… etc., people made a kind of stop, because is habituated to read “said” as a common word, and this turns “invisible” and people can read easy; use a different word can be a extra efford from the author to “look smart”. (They says).
For me, that explanation does not have to much sense. For me, if a word is necessary, you must to used it, but not just to “delete/change” the words “said/asked/answered”. And you can explaine with another words which character is doing. For me, if you read words (dialogue), is because someone is speaking…
I guess the rules are different between spanish and english writing style. I tried do not use just Said/asked when a character talks. But some word in spanish are not so common to use as: “replicar” (replay) “expresar” (express). In this case, in spanish is not “good way to write” when you “reconfirm” a statement (?).
“When?”, he asked.
“Tomorrow”, she answered.
In those cases, you even can omit the words asked/said.
For that, this point is really interesting for me, see the difference in the style in both lenguages. In spanish, if you wanted express something, just take off the obvious thing, and the example dialogue can turns in:
“When?”, he mused.
“Tomorrow”, she complained and walked away.
Its good see another point of view.
The varation on traslated book, can defines, why in our spanish “original english books” are so different. But, the fact I learn is when you write, you must to use the balance, the dialogues are great if you use the right words, do it too much “florid” if is a neutral narrator, can be a desaster, as if you use a “plain” (said) if the narrator is a erudit, first witness narrator. For me, each narrator will ask always a good balance, not ignore or abuse with some particular words.
P.S.: Sorry for my english mistakes, is not my mother lenguage.
Thank you for this detailed input – it’s interesting to hear your perspective as a Spanish speaker. You’re right that the dialogue tag is better omitted in instances such as your example, of course. Tags aren’t usually necessary when it’s clear who is speaking and the tone/feeling behind their words.
this is so helpful…..Jupiter Thanks
It’s a pleasure! Thanks for reading.