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Dialogue Writing

Dialogue words: Other words for ‘said’ (and what to avoid)

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:

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:

  1. Use all dialogue tags sparingly
  2. Use said or other tags only where necessary
  3. 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!”

  “Apparently not.”

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.

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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)
Other words for said word cloud

Here are dialogue words you can use instead of ‘said’, categorised by the kind of emotion or scenario they convey:

Anger:

Shouted, bellowed, yelled, snapped, cautioned, rebuked.

Affection:

Consoled, comforted, reassured, admired, soothed.

Excitement:

Shouted, yelled, babbled, gushed, exclaimed.

Fear:

Whispered, stuttered, stammered, gasped, urged, hissed, babbled, blurted.

Determination:

Declared, insisted, maintained, commanded.

Happiness:

Sighed, murmured, gushed, laughed.

Sadness:

Cried, mumbled, sobbed, sighed, lamented.

Conflict:

Jabbed, sneered, rebuked, hissed, scolded, demanded, threatened, insinuated, spat, glowered.

Making up:

Apologised, relented, agreed, reassured, placated, assented.

Amusement

Teased, joked, laughed, chuckled, chortled, sniggered, tittered, guffawed, giggled, roared.

Storytelling:

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.

Dialogue words and actions in dialogue - Jerome Stern

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).

Richard Nixon – a talking head in a jar in 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.

Now compare:

“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.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

434 replies on “Dialogue words: Other words for ‘said’ (and what to avoid)”

in a novel im working on I wanted some good words for awnsering questions that another character asked. I noticed there was only persisted. Am I missing something? If not what are some good words to use in my situation.

Hi SC. It depends on the nature of the conversation. If the character asks a silly question, you could use ‘scoffed’ or ‘laughed’ for the reply. If you want to create a little awkwardness (say, for example, the questioning character is being too probing/personal), you could use ‘she paused’ or ‘she hesitated’ (more a descriptor of the flow of conversation than explicit statement of how the character is speaking). I hope these give you some ideas!

Thanks a bunch! It helped me a lot with a story I have to pass to my teacher and she was delighted of my work! You’re the best!

Iā€™m the worst…People at my school called me a stupid kid, four eyes asshole, that loser who is obsessed with stupid kiddy (anime) shows, and that guy is the worst writing in the planet, tell him that go home and kill yourself…

I donā€™t know who am I anymore… šŸ™

It’s ok I’m writing my first book (not for publish yet) and I made so many grammar mistakes. Just keep practicing and you’ll do great at it!

I feel bad for you. At my school, most people accept me for being a person that likes anime (or not a lot who complains about it). I also have lots of friends also who like anime and lots who aren’t a fan. I guess I got lucky with my location. Hope you find others who share the same interest as you. But I reckon you can use your experience to write a book as a good book relies on the author’s experience.

Don’t worry, the world is a big place. Sooner or later you’ll meet some1 with the same interest.

man, I cried when I read that. My Narrative has Miku Hatsune in it( don’t know if I spelled that right, though) LOL

They’re just dumb kids who probably can’t write a paragraph as good as ur stories. Plus, 4 eyes is better than 2

I knew there were people who used this to write on wattpad. I love wattpad to be honest, I’m writing a story as well. Although my story aren’t being published because I’m not comfortable yet. Good luck with your story! uwu

I’m in the same situation as you. Wattpad is amazing. I’m also writing a story but I don’t have enough confidence to post it yet. I get petrified when someone says something really bad about my things. I’m sure every will feel bad when someone does that, so make sure you only post nice comments and appropriate feedback. ^-^

Hey you guys, I’m a Wattpad author myself, and I just reached my 20 followers point, actually šŸ™‚ You shouldn’t be afraid of the haters, let them say what they want to say! I bet half of them couldn’t even work up the courage to write anything at all! Wattpad is a friendly community of people, there’s only a few haters. Most people will encourage you to follow your passion! And it’s no big deal if you’re just not comfortable, though I’m sure it’s more amazing than you take credit for šŸ˜€

P.S. Gods, I really don’t want to sound like I’m advertising, but my user is @Awesomeandscary123 if y’all are interested in reading my works. Always up to you, though šŸ™‚

What I am doing is writing the full story and then publishing it all at once so that my readers don’t have to wait and wait for another chapter.

I don’t agree with your advice. Said is often used because it’s unobstrubsive, so that the reader will focus more on the dialogue.

Thank you for the feedback, Iva. It is a a contentious topic, but you’re right about ‘said’ being less obtrusive. Often no dialogue tag at all is even less obtrusive, however, as often the reader can infer from speech marks and context who is speaking, making it unnecessary to use ‘said’. Yet everyone has their preferences. Essentially the advice is not to use ‘growled’ or ‘whispered’ every other line. Thank you for weighing in.

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