I think this is one of those things that everyone has problems with sometimes, especially if you’re one of those writers who does heavy dialogue pieces. Basically, the question is, how do you make a conversation interesting while still making it obvious how your characters are speaking? As we all know, how you say something and what you say are irrevocably intertwined (the reason why ‘speaking’ on the internet is such a massive source of miscommunication) and so it becomes an author’s duty to relay these spoken nuances into paper, at least during moments of unambiguity.

This really isn’t a problem for people who don’t have a lot of talking, or only have single character talking. For the former, the usual ‘said’ will suffice, and for the latter, you probably don’t even need speech tags. Most stories aren’t this way, and therefore this is one of those hurtles that needs to be gotten over to make a readable story, or at least, readable dialogue.

One thing people do—I know I did it a lot in my earlier years—is try to counter boring speech tags and long periods of dialogue by changing the speech tag every other line. To someone who either doesn’t read or a lot, or doesn’t yet have a feel for writing itself, this sounds like a simple and effective solution for countering something that other people wrestle with for hours. But, like I said, people with more experience will tell you that it kind of isn’t. To demonstrate:

“Is that a dog?” Alma asked.
“It looks like a rat,” Ede laughed.
“Catch it!” Carmen yelled.

After three lines, reading the speech tags is already tedious, and pretty annoying. I don’t know who these three people are, but I hate them, and I hope that thing they’re looking at has an infectious disease which they will invariably contract and, hopefully, die from. Though it does tell you how the characters are speaking, which I suppose means it’s serving its purpose, the constant switching of speech tags becomes boring, throws off the dialogue’s rhythm, and the whole conversation begins to blend into one amorphous mass. Changing speech tags is useful, but like chili peppers, can’t be used in excess. Or else it’ll kill you. Seasoning your dialogue with a long list of adverbs to describe how the character is speaking isn’t much better, and the problem still stands.

The normal, ‘boring’ speech tags of ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are your friends. Though they might not be as interesting, because people are used to them they’re also much less obtrusive and even as you read them, they kind of mill around in the back like twits at a prom, not truly being picked up by your brain. However, don’t go too far in the other direction and replace all the speech tags in the previous dialogue with ‘said’ because that will probably make it even worse and more unbearable to read.

Also, keep in mind how you describe the speaking character. I think, at the beginning of any story, the author already knows enough about a character to know when to put ‘Dima said,’ ‘the doctor said,’ or ‘the Russian said.’ You don’t need more than three—even two can suffice at times—but having them is important in connection to the dialogue and the main body of prose.

In regards to the above few paragraphs, however, there is something I’d like to mention. A few times I’ve been told to never say in two words what you can say in one. For instance, never write ‘said quietly’ when you can put ‘whispered.’ I, on the other hand, think this is ridiculous. Words are more than just letters and their meanings—rhythm is a huge part of writing, even in prose. If putting in ‘said quietly’ gives you just the right amount of syllables to complete what you perceive to be your sentence’s rhythm, then sure as hell go for it. For this, playing around with the speech tag placement is also a good idea. They don’t always have to go at the end of the line—cut the speech into two pieces and insert the tag in between, or put it at the beginning, or change ‘Jack said’ to ‘said Jack,’ and it’ll change how a person perceives the passage, if even a little. Nuance is also important to remember for speech tags, and though ‘whispered’ and ‘said quietly’ are incredibly similar, there might be a good reason why you picked the one instead of the other for that particular period. Think of what your character is really saying, and how you want them to be perceived by the audience, when you pick a speech tag. It’ll come as second nature in no time.

At the end of the day, no matter how good you get at picking speech tags, if they’re all you use you end up with a horrible disease, one which will kill your writing like the proverbial plague. It is the dreaded ‘talking head syndrome.’ This is when your characters dissolve into their words, and eventually just slide into a vacuum and because they are in empty space, quickly become victims of explosive decompression. Or, put in English, they pretty stop ‘being’. As characters yack and yack, they stop actually existing, and your reader loses a sense of setting the longer it goes. I don’t really understand how people can fall into this myself. If I wanted to read a recitation, I’d buy a screenplay, or better yet, go to a movie. Actually, that might even help you to do just that. People aren’t fully conscious of their own actions when they’re being candid, but if you go see a play or a film, pay attention to what the actors do while they’re speaking to one another. Do they fiddle? Do they play around, as though not paying attention? Do the two walk, heading to a destination? All these things help to make a scene stop feeling static. I mean, if you’ve ever watched two amateur actors, the first thing you’ll notice is how brain damaged they look when they just stand there, perfectly still, doing nothing but talk about crap you don’t care about. This carries over into dialogue.

Alder frowned and got reluctantly out of the closet, eyeing the knife that was pointed at him. “You found me.” “So I did,” said Sedgwick after a terse nod.
“Aaaannd…” prompted the younger man. He took a slow step backwards, wondering if he should have stayed in the closet. “What do you intend to do with me now?”
At that, Sedgwick smiled. He put the knife back in his belt, made up the step between them, and answered sneeringly, “I mean to steal you away.”

Enhance speech tags by mentioning the actions of the character as they talk. Are they twiddling their thumbs? Playing a game? Are they doing some sort of task, like changing a light bulb or fixing a car? If they are, then mention it. It adds a lot of fluidity and realism, and serves to draw in the reader, letting them ‘see’ the character more clearly. Putting minor thoughts and opinions in these places—nothing that’ll take up more than a few words—serves the same purpose, and gives a better sense of the dialogue that follows too.

But if all this doesn’t work, never fear. Truth be told, the best way to fix a dialogue like the one at the top of the page is to do something quite revolutionary: remove the speech tags. That’s right, just let them disappear. I’m probably not the person who should be writing this article, since I don’t use speech tags very often, or at least not as often as I do other things. They bore me, and are the reason why I don’t like reading dialogue-heavy pieces. Write a character unique enough that they don’t need speech tags. If you have three characters in a room having a conversation and you never name who’s who, a reader should still be able to identify who’s talking because their voice is their own. Personality, word choice, and of course attitude towards the other two speakers, should all carry over into the dialogue and make speech tags superfluous.

“Are you some kind of idiot?!”
“Um, can we just…?”
“You’re frightening the girl. Don’t you know when to quiet down?”
“Don’t tell me when to quiet down, jack ass!”
“Please, I…I don’t want there to be…!”
“Listen to yourself. I think you’re going to make her cry.”
“N-no, I’m not—”
“Shut up! What do you know about it anyway?”
“I certainly know more about it than you.”
“Piece of—”
“Just stop fighting!”

This isn’t a grade-A dialogue word-wise, but for the purposes of demonstration, it does the trick. Even though none of the characters are named, you don’t know their appearances or who they are, you can pick each of them out without any difficulty, and even guess what sort of relationship they have. This is helpful when you have a lot of characters talking at once and you really just don’t want to be bothered adding speech tags that’ll do nothing but bog down the tension of the exchange.

With me, even when I don’t put in proper speech tags, I tend to mention what the character is doing at the time, or at least their reactions to what the other character has said. So in conclusion, all the things I’ve mentioned? Blend them. And you’d surprised. Instead of making dialogue schizophrenic and annoying, it gives variability and depth. So try things out, and see what works for you. Who knows, maybe this advice will actually help? But in any case, practice and get a feel for how to write speech, and with that newfound knowledge, go yo and be awesome.

Tagged as:


  1. Spanman on 25 July 2011, 19:34 said:

    Great article! I’ve always felt a less-is-more attitude towards speech tags but I’ve never quite known how to put it into words (and I call myself a writer…)

  2. Sharkonian on 25 July 2011, 20:51 said:

    I’ve been waiting for an article like this!

    Nuance is also important to remember for speech tags, and though ‘whispered’ and ‘said quietly’ are incredibly similar, there might be a good reason why you picked the one instead of the other for that particular period. Think of what your character is really saying, and how you want them to be perceived by the audience, when you pick a speech tag. It’ll come as second nature in no time.

    I kind of follow the “less is more” line of writing, but I also agree with this. But, then, it really comes down to what you want your character to do. There is a difference between whispering and saying something quietly. At least, how I see it, it is. Whispering seems more secretive to me than saying something quietly.

    Anyways, great article. c:

  3. Shinjachan on 26 July 2011, 12:18 said:

    Random question, so it’s totally okay if you don’t answer, but..
    Why isn’t that dialogue grade A? What sort of critiques would you give it? I thought it was okay.

  4. Beldam on 26 July 2011, 12:45 said:

    @ Shinjachan

    Ahahaha, reading over it again, I can’t find anything discernably wrong with it either. I think at the time I wrote the article, I decided to pick three random character types and then chuck them into a short dialogue, but as I wrote the dialogue I realized I didn’t like the characters involved in it. I think that just carried over into my opinion of the dialogue itself. I really hate writing dialogue for both very meek and very openly angry characters, especially around one another (because I suck at it) and that coloured my opinion of it. I think I’m just one of those people who’s super critical of their own stuff. Anyway, this answer is probably faaar longer than you required, so long story short, I can’t think of any criticms—though, for argument’s sake, there probably is something wrong with it. My mind simply rebels against it.

  5. SlyShy on 26 July 2011, 14:44 said:

    I would be slightly concerned about that dialogue being over punctuated. Ellipses and exclamation marks do need to be used sparingly, or they start to look silly.

    Remember that dialogue isn’t entirely true to real world speech. In real world speech people trail off constantly, the speech is disorganized and jumps from point to point, etc. Even in books where the dialogue is very true to life it is still cleaned-up somewhat.

    What does “…!” indicate? My guess is the sentence started out with some “!” and then trailed off, but the punctuation is weird for conveying that.

    I’d like to know if anyone has ideas for conveying people talking over each other in writing. I haven’t come up with something satisfactory yet.

  6. Inkblot on 26 July 2011, 16:38 said:

    I tend to use the dash fairly haphazardly for that, Sly.

    “What do you mean by tha-”
    “I MEANT. TO. SAY…”

    Like so. Sometimes I just throw in a sentence saying “X cut Y off adjective-ally”.

    Also, Sly, “…!” indicates someone who is speaking forcefully, or trying to, but trails off before delivering the full punch, as opposed to “…” which is someone just miserably trailing off without the additional vehemence. That ain’t no gold-plated definition, of course, but it made perfect sense to me when I was reading it. Subtle nuances are very hit-or-miss, I think.

    So. The dreaded speech tag, bane of writers everywhere. Great article.

    I remember reading somewhere never to use the word “said”. So I started consciously avoiding it. And now I realize that that’s stupid, and am starting to put it back in sparingly.

    Also, Beldam, I loved the little chunk of dialogue at the end. While you may hate meek or vicious characters, you definitely don’t suck at characterizing them.

  7. Rozen Maiden on 27 July 2011, 02:17 said:

    I once used “…!” in a scene I wrote where one character is trying to talk to another who very pointedly does not want to talk. So they ‘say’ “…” a couple of times to show that, then “…!” to sort of indicate that they’re really emphatically not talking. If that makes any sense. It’s probably something their body language would have conveyed but I chose to use “…!” instead because I felt it flowed better.

  8. Beldam on 27 July 2011, 09:28 said:

    Thanks to everyone who complimented the article _
    For ‘…!’ I’ve always used it the same was as Inkblot. Like, trailing off with gusto. However, I’d definitley recognize the way Rozen used it if I saw it. Admittedly, for me, using the ‘…!’ is something i picked up from reading a lot of shoujo manga. It’s less common in novels, I think.

  9. Costanza on 28 July 2011, 23:03 said:

    Wrong, wrong, wrong! Twilight says that every sentence MUST contain a speech tag, but never just a plain old ‘said’. That’s too boring. We need ‘gasped’, ‘muttered’, ‘murmured’ and ‘hissed’ and other such tags all the time. Oh, and the word ‘chagrin’. Use that a lot, because most people don’t know what it means and it’ll make you look like a smart writer.

  10. Beldam on 29 July 2011, 05:16 said:

    OMG you are so right! I didn’t even make any mentions of characters needing topaz eyes or marble bodies for the audience to be interested in them! Now how will people care about the individuals in the dialogue? Man, I am such a hack! I just missed a perfect opportunity to delude millions of girls all over the world with my absurdly florid prose. Sigh…at least now I know…

  11. swenson on 30 July 2011, 21:33 said:

    The annoying thing about spending so much time on writing sites is you start to pick out things in books instead of just reading them. But I suppose that’s a handy talent to have. :D

    Anyway, I’ve really been noticing speech tags in books I’ve read recently. And it’s true—a skilled writer can get away with surprisingly long passages with no speech tags whatsoever, simply by the way the characters talk, their actual words, and surrounding sentences. It’s actually quite interesting how much can be said with so little. Dialogue tags often break the reader out of the flow of words, anyway. If it’s poorly done, of course, you’re left trying to work out who’s saying what and it breaks you out of the flow anyway, but a well-done passage of that type just keeps the flow going.

  12. happycrab91 on 31 July 2011, 08:49 said:

    Gotta thank you Beldam for writing this. It’s made me think hard about my dialogue and one scene in particular where a group of mostly unimportant characters are talking. I got sick of retyping “said the man in blue” and such but I think I’ve written them distinctly enough to get rid of a lot of that.

  13. Beldam on 31 July 2011, 09:59 said:

    Heeey, no problem. I’m glad this article was of some help :)

  14. NinjaCat on 31 July 2011, 13:20 said:

    I’ve been starting to notice that a lot of Michael Crichton’s books are dialogue heavy. He used a lot of saids, but most of the time either left out the entire tag or wrote it so that the name was listed first, like, in Sphere,

    Ted: “I’d like to say a few words.”
    Harry: “Jesus, Ted. Can’t you ever let up?”
    Ted: “I think it’s important.”
    Harry: “Go ahead, make your speech.” (Sphere, pg. 70)

    and so on. I feel it worked well with the theme of the book. It was mainly written in third-person limited, and that part was being recorded on a video camera while the viewpoint character was mainly out of the picture. When the tape was shut off, the book went back to normal description and dialogue.

    What I mean to say is that there are other ways of doing long stretches of dialogue. Well, actually, I forgot what my real point was. It just looked cool. Great article, it made me read Sphere again!

  15. fffan on 8 August 2011, 03:18 said:

    We need ‘gasped’, ‘muttered’, ‘murmured’ and ‘hissed’ and other such tags all the time

    Oh, I beg to differ sir! ‘Meowed’, ‘trumpeted’, ‘barked’ and (a personal favourite of mine, this) ‘ejaculated’ are the real keys to making your dialogue shine.

    But seriously, nice article, Beldam. I can’t stand it when ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are bashed for being too common. That’s what makes them beautiful.

  16. maddie on 9 November 2011, 19:01 said:

    thank you very much avidazang

  17. SeamusMac on 22 July 2012, 17:03 said:

    I read Stephan King’s ‘On Writing’ and he said very similar things, “Murder you darlings and lose 99% of adverbs in speech tags.” Oh, and cut back on the booze and cocaine. Great article Bedlam! (I said approvingly with chagrin.)