If you search for alternative dialogue tags to use in your story, you’ll find many lists. While some synonyms for ‘said’ read naturally (such as words conveying volume like ‘whispered’), others come across as overwritten and forced, particularly in the wrong context.
Here are 5 simple ways to avoid clunky overuse of ‘he said/she said’:
1. Decide if dialogue tags are necessary
Sometimes we say ‘she said’, ‘he said’ or ‘they said’ when we don’t need to. Just because it’s a writing device commonly used in dialogue doesn’t mean you have to use it. When you get to the end of a line of dialogue, ask yourself:
- Is it clear, from context, who is speaking at this moment?
- Do preceding narration and formatting (such as line breaks) help clarify who is speaking?
If you answered ‘yes’ to either of these, you don’t need tags.
For example, you wouldn’t need to use dialogue tags in the following example. The narration beforehand makes it clear who’s speaking, and the details of the characters’ speech give away who says what:
She picked a bit of fluff off her top, looked out the window. He wondered whether he was boring her.
“You seem distracted.”
“Hmm? You’re being intense again, Guy.”
It’s clear from the narration, description and actions who is saying what in the scene. The girls’ actions make it clear she’s the addressee of ‘You seem distracted.’ Her response also gives us a sense of how her date says this.
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2. Favour unobtrusive tags
The stranger the tag, the more colourful and quirky, the more it will stick out in your dialogue.
Ideally, your reader is getting as much clarity from what characters say as they get from how they say it.
The infographic below (via The Puppet Show) has some good alternatives. Yet it suggests words such as ‘enunciated’ as a synonym for ‘said’. However, if you were to use this tag randomly in the middle of dialogue it would seem arbitrary.
“You seem distracted,” he enunciated.
Because ‘to enunciate’ means ‘to say or pronounce clearly’ it doesn’t completely make sense in this context, since there isn’t a clear reason for the boy to ‘enunciate’.
However, if clarity of speech were relevant to a scene, you could use this word as a tag as it would fit. For example:
“Speak slower.” The speech therapist’s eyes were stern.
“The w-wascal wabbit wan-” he enunciated, wishing each ‘R’ could be clearer.
However, you could achieve a similar effect other ways, too. For example, using ellipses, i.e. punctuation, to show concentration; pauses:
“The w-wascal … wabbit … wan … ” He wished each R could be clearer.
This shows the effort the character is putting in, thus you don’t need a dialogue tag necessarily.
When in doubt, a simple ‘said’ is often enough. Instead of letting different ways to say ‘said’ do heavy lifting, remember this sage advice from Toni Morrison:
I never say “She says softly.” If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear it’s soft.
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3. Use physical gesture and motion instead of ‘said’
Other ways to say ‘she said’ avoid dialogue tags entirely. You may draw attention to the character who has said a line by immediately following speech with that character’s actions.
“No I absolutely will not!” She banged the pitcher of water down on the counter so hard Sarah was surprised the bottom didn’t crack open.
It’s clear from just this line that a female character is in the scene with Sarah, and she’s furious.
The advantages of showing who said what via movement and gesture are:
- You can bring in scene setting elements (where the conversation is taking place and the objects surrounding characters) subtly. This adds detail and mental imagery.
- You can ground your characters’ conversations in a sense of place. This avoids dialogue that resembles heads in vats chatting away without bodies, movement or direction.
4. Use ways to say ‘said’ that add atmosphere
Using gestures and actions such as the following, as outlined above, helps to lend character and emotion to dialogue:
- She gazed out the window (this suggests being lost in thought, or perhaps longing)
- He turned his away (suggesting withdrawal or retreat)
- They elbowed each other and jumped up and down (suggesting children vying to be heard above each other)
Also think about ways to say said that convey volume and tone, i.e. atmosphere. Although Toni Morrison’s advice above is good (creating quietness using the spaces around characters’ lines), the occasional ‘she whispered’ has its place, too.
Synonyms for said that show volume include:
- Quietly: ‘Mouthed’, ‘whispered’, ‘hissed’, ‘mumbled’, ‘muttered’, ‘said, under their breath’
- Loudly: ‘Yelled’, ‘shouted’, ‘bellowed’, ‘screamed’, ‘roared’
The above words remind us that tags that indicate volume and tone are typically reserved for extremes – of tension, emotion or environment. A kid protagonist might whisper in a creepy graveyard, a pranked neighbour might ‘bellow’ in pure outrage. Yet these are suitable tags for climactic moments. Make characters bellow or whisper every other line and the device loses its effect.
5. Switch to a narrator or other character’s reaction
Because dialogue is relational, an exchange between two or more characters, it also works to switch to another character’s reaction instead of focusing on the character who’s just finished speaking.
For example, read the following brief dialogue:
“You wouldn’t believe what happened next. I was-“
“John, can we pause this for a second, I really need the bathroom.”
When I returned, I couldn’t believe he was still going. Something about what not to do in an avalanche. As if he were the only one at the party who’d ever had any adventures.
Here, because the second character addresses John by name, we know who’s been speaking. Because of their interruption, as well as their shock that John is still speaking when they return, we also get a sense of how John speaks. It’s a one-way street, John holding the floor (and holding his listeners ransom).
As you can see from the above, there are many ways to show who is speaking in dialogue. Other ways to say said can avoid dialogue tags entirely. Use gesture, movement or reaction to show your reader details of character and setting.
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