Friday, February 16, 2007

Dialogue tags NOT to use

Writing advice on dialogue often tells us to use only the word 'said' as a dialogue tag. They seldom tell us what words not to use. Here are words NOT to use as dialogue tags:

Pointed out

Got more?


Anonymous said...

"Sometimes I get sick of all the rules," he whispered.
"But, everybody needs rules," they replied.
"To hell with it," he screamed.
"Calm dawn," they began.
"Let's just write something fun and not worry about any of the rules," he howled.
"That's just crazy talk," they claimed. "You'll never get published that way."
"Well, isn't that why we have day jobs," he pointed out.
"Oh. So you are just an amateur," they observed.
"Yeah. I guess that's right," he answered.

Anonymous said...

Too funny, Mike! she thought quietly.

Anonymous said...

Novice question: How come all you can you use is said? I've heard that before, and would that make for drab and boring writing: He said, she said, they said, etc. I can understand phrases like ejaculated, but why not whisper?

Dr. Bill Emener said...

And my bet is that whoever said that only watches black and white movies.
"Jeez," I would implore to him or her, "ever hear of Technicolor?!

Sela Carsen said...

"Said" is invisible. The reader's eye skips right over it. And it's not like every line is "he said, she said." Some lines don't need any tags, some get action beats. It all evens out.

But sometimes, it's fun to mix it up a little. Personally, I liked "hissed."

Ken Brosky said...

This is a great post, and a lot of beginning writers waste so much time racking their brains to come up with anything other than "said." Little do they know ...


Paperback Writer said...

Those are good. :) I would think of something witty to write here, but my head is full of snot.... (wait for it...) She typed snottily.

Kim Knox said...

...and some don't even like said...

Spilling Ink said...

This is a great reminder! 'Said' pretty much says all that is necessary.

Anonymous said...

And to add onto Sela's reasoning, when you use anything other than said too often, the reader becomes aware of the author or that they're reading. Like anything else, once you know the rules, you can break them occasionally, but only with good reason!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see. Thanks! I've been curious about that for a while.

Anonymous said...

great list, would definately like to see more of these as I often try to use something other than said but usually end up with either "said." "told him/her" "called" etc...

Unknown said...

It especially drives me crazy when newspapers, especially cutesy community ones with 'reporters' made up of relatives of the publisher or wannabe novelists (the kind that talk about, talk about, but never do) write the articles. The word that drives me most postal? "Noted". ' "The bicyclist was driving over snow-covered sidewalks and just asking for problems," noted Constable Gendarme when asked about the cause of the crash.' Arghhhhh! For some inscrutable reason, this is gasoline on the flames of irritation over shoddy writing. Or maybe I just don't have enough to worry about?

Keep it clean, keep it simple, I guess, when it comes to dialogue verbs. Says and said work for me. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wonderful post!

When I learned the rules, I had to remove some instances of "he offered"
"she croaked," and "he barked." And yes, these were people speaking, not frogs or dogs. LOL.

Just discovered you and am going to read through your pieces. Looks great!

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with this rule. Said as your only dialogue tag DOES NOT become invisible. I don't care what you say. I've read books following this rule and in my opinion they don't work 90% of the time.

You have to rely on so many MORE words to simple get the point across that 'he shouted' that many times authors can't do it successfully.

My rule is 75% said - 25% other

However, that said, there aren't A LOT in the other category I approve a using. Whisper, Shout, Scream and Agree are dialogue tags I think have their place in writing and can be used effectively. On occasion I don't have a problem with some of the others like demand, deny, mumble, and order.

Dialogue tags are more complicated than saying use this one and don't use these those. Dialogue is my strongest point in writing--and I don't use just 'said'. But like I said there's so much more to dialogue than tags and whether you use them or not.

(ok rant over :))

Anonymous said...

hey Jennifer - I was being a bit fecitious - however, I think newbie writers are better off using the rule until they know how to break it.

Anonymous said...

Hi :) Sorry the 'you' wasn't implying you--it was really more to the rule books (the writers of them...) that write these rules. And of course this is a topic that's always been one I have lots to say on.

Sorry, hope I didn't come off sounding mean!

Rose Ghost said...

I think 'whispered' is ok in some circumstances...

"Look out!" she cried, zestfully!
"A pigeon!" he exclaimed excitedly.


Alison Tyler said...

I must say, I'm absolutely confused by this rule. I think stories would be rather stilted if the only accepted dialogue tag was "said." (Of course, maybe this is more true for erotic fiction than mainstream. "Oh, god! I'm going to come," he said, is somewhat flat to me. And I'm all for my characters whispering, murmuring, purring, cooing and the like.)

That "said," one of my favorite writers is Roddy Doyle, and if I remember correctly, he doesn't use any dialogue tags at all. Just dashes.

Very interesting post...

Sela Carsen said...

I think the reason this became one of the infamous "rules" is because editors were going bananas over all the newbie writers "shouting" "hissing" "declaiming" all over the place when, really, a simple "said" would have covered it.

As previously noted, if every line of dialogue is "he said, she said" then yes, it becomes obvious and stilted. But not all dialogue needs attribution. I use action tags to set a mood rather than relying on "said" or "postulated" or "noted."

In any case, this rule is a good one to break once you know how to do it well. It's all part of the growing process as a writer.

IM Cupnjava said...

I try to avoid dialog tags and use action tags instead. For some reason, "John said," tends to pull me out of the action in a story and remind me that I'm reading. I'd rather see...

John pulled the knife out of Mark's thigh. "We'll kill them for this. I swear it."

Or something like that. Could just be me. I've been told that dialog tags aren't the evil things I think they are.

Anonymous said...

This is the most idiotic thing I have ever heard. . . Every book i've ever read uses those words in you pointless little list. I myself write stories and all my freinds love them. Even people I don't know like them. And wanna know something else I use the words in your list. In fact the reason I stiumbled upon your little list is becasue I was looked for words to use in my dialogue. In fact I'm going to copy and past the list as a refrence when I can't think of what words to use. And just so you know in school I was once given a list of words just like your and we were told to use them in our narritives so I don't know where you learned this. Also I'm sorry I sound so rude, I'm PMSing. . .

Unknown said...

Instead of using words like whisper, grunted, screamed as a dialogue tag, just use them as an action tag.

Using someone's previous example:

A pigeon!" he exclaimed excitedly.

could be this instead:

"A pigeon!" Timmy pointed and jumped up and down. "Look, Mommy! It's flying away!"

You don't need the word 'exclaimed' because the exclamation point already tells us how it's being said. The action tags should show the reader that the little boy is excited.

Anonymous said...

i see why this is argued so much, too much of any good thing can be vexing, but its really an opinionated thing that can be handled in many ways. as i said too much of anyting is redundant, but if you use a variety of things that work together there shouldnt be a problem.

Every Day Bloggers said...


How do you feel about the occasional "said he"?

Anonymous said...

Facetious or not, this is pretty crummy advice, if I do say so myself. I've been told for years that I shouldn't use ONLY the word 'said'. So I don't know where you get your writing advice from, but I advise that you don't pass it on.

The words that you listed CAN be good to use, but sometimes said IS the better word. But saying it's the only word to use in dialogues is possibly the worst piece of writing advice I've ever heard.

I really do hope that you're completely joking with this because, if not, I'd really hate to read anything you've written because it must be rather flat and the characters must have no emotion.

Example of good use:
"Mommy!" Ella cried, reaching for the lolly. "Please, Mommy?"
"No, sweetheart. You'll ruin your appetite," Karen said, grasping her daughter's wrist.

Anonymous said...

What about 'thought'. Is it one of those dialogue tags that can be used if careful?

al said...

I wasn't aware there were any rules regarding the use of verbs in dialogue...

Surely it's just a case of using whatever word best describes the delivery of the dialogue?

It's a bit ridiculous to suggest that 'said' alone can describe every type of dialogue in a story...

Not to mention finical.

Robert said...

Dialog will often define the tag, and for that reason, nothing more than "said" is needed. For instance, there's no point in writing, "I'm all out of breath," he gasped. Most novice writers overdo it with their tags. On the other hand, too many writers go far too long without tags, and you wind up having to mentally add them yourself, or lose track of who's speaking.

Anonymous said...

"The conversation is amusing." I mumbled, amused by the conversation.

To ease the minds of many that seem frustrated with this advice, I would like to counter with some advice of my own...

There are no rules to writing. Writing gives you the freedom to express yourself, which is truly the beauty of it.

If your story is dull and "reminds someone that they are reading" is not due to the use of the word said.

If rules were followed, we would not have some of the great novels in history.

If you can tell a great story, you could use the word exclaimed exclusively. "That's some excellent advice!" Exclaimed the readers of this blog as their widened, shocked by my sound advice.

- said...

I disagree with this post - tags like these in my opinion can be used occasionally, if you want more expression than just "said" would offer. As long as you don't overdo it with the tags, you're fine.

Julie Musil said...

"I love the first comment by Mike," Julie said jealously.

Crystal said...

"Julie, girl, I totally agree!" the cheerleading captain cast the comment a jealous look. "I wish we didn't have all these rules!" The tall girl sighed longingly.

"I'm going to ignore them sometime," I said slowly, then stood up, my eyes wide and my mouth half opened. "I'll do it now! Look over there, guys! I didn't follow the rules. Look! -->" I /exclaimed/ as I pointed to the words to check it was true. "I did it!" I shrieked, "I broke a rule, and I don't think my dialogue got boring!"

"It would get boring if you used it all the time, though.." the cheerleader said thoughtfully.


Chris said...

I agree with anonymous. There are no rules in writing, just as there are no rules in any art form. You do what you like, and if you're good at it, others will like it, too. If you stink, well, do it anyway, but you'll only be entertaining yourself.

But on the topic of dialogue, read some P.G. Wodehouse, the master of the genre. Read these two pages and you'll see every device discussed above, from "said" to "explained" to clever action tags:

I goggled. Her words did not appear to make sense. They seemed the mere aimless vapouring of an aunt who has been sitting out in the sun without a hat.



I goggled again.

"You don't mean me?"

"I mean you in person."

I goggled a third time.

"You're pulling my leg."

"I am not pulling your leg. Nothing would induce me to touch your beastly leg. ..."

Heehee! Brilliant stuff.

Chris Lunda said...

I think the 90% said rule is insane. Good thing JK Rowling didnt read all the expert advice on the raging dialog tag debate. Read the first chapter of t=ger first book. Varied dialogue tags, ly words everywhere.

I think ignoring the "new writers should stick to using mostly said rule" worked out just fine for her

Will said...

Words like whisper, shout, scream, actually refer to the volume (or lack of it) of the words, not the way they're said. Depending on punctuation of the dialogue and the situation, they may not even be needed. The dialogue needs to carry the emotional weight, not the tag.
J.K. Rowling got away with it because she was writing for young adults, and some things can be used there since kids don't always catch the subtext of what's said and need more emotional cues than adults.
There are alternatives to said, like using an action as a dialogue tag, though it should be something interesting or pertinent to the character, othwerwise the writer will be spending revision time taking out nods and smiles. And if two people are talking in a scene, then tags can be lessened because only two people are talking.
The best way to see if the dialogue works is to read it out loud and see how the 'saids' sound and adjust from there.
'LY' words as tags are called Tom Swifty's and have been routinely frowned upon by editors since editing began.

sam said...

I am writing a book now, and i believe that you should use the tags above. they make your dialog more interesting.

"Watch out for that cliff!" Aspen said


"Watch out for that cliff!" Aspen screamed.

DING DING DING, We have a winner! Sentence number two with the fancy dialog tag!

Read my book at

MultiBaller said...

Sam, with all due respect your writing is riddled with a lot of redundancies. Take this:

“Where are you taking us?” Alder asked.

“I have a plan” I told them

“Are you out of your mind Sam?” Aspen asked.

“Does it matter? Do any of you have an idea?” I asked
Does the reader need to be reminded about what a question mark means whenever somebody asks a question? Perhaps a motion or an action would tell by showing more effectively, while creating opportunities to build up the environment. For example:

“Where are you taking us?”. Alder stepped quietly out of the way of a loose branch.

I stopped for a moment to turn to Alder. “I have a plan”.

Aspen slowed as he spoke, finally stopping in disbelief. “Are you out of your mind Sam?”

Laila quietly stopped along side Aspen.

“Does it matter?"
I turned against the rest of the pack. "Do any of you have an idea?”
The air, cool with fear, had begun to chill with silence. “Speak up because I want to hear what your brilliant minds are thinking.”

Aspen let out a weak whimper, and rocked his head toward the ground.

Laila took a short stride forward. “We just want to hear your plan so we know what we’re doing.”


It's hardly perfect, as I havn't read the story enough to know much about what's going on, but one reason people avoid goofy tags is that it tells by telling, and it's a classic cop-out of building up the environment, while creating distractions in the writing.

Remember that you're writing to create a world, but you're also writing for readers. Distracting readers with tags also makes your characters overly dramatic, which is why it's considered poor form.

When I draft, I use tags, but I go over everything a second time to count how many times I can expand the tag into a meaningful action or description. If I can, the tag is "upgraded" into something useful. If I can't, the tag disappears.

Dave2424 said...

As a published author, and a college english teacher I will say this list is mostly garbage.

While I will agree that 90% of dialogue tags should be simple, such as "said" and "asked, many of the words on the list above can be used in very appropriate and empowering ways.

I promise you will find 30 of those tags in any book by any modern published author, and you will find them routinely.

Simply because you, the author, lacks the skill to creatively use dialogue tags outside of the few safe ones, does not mean other authors are equally as unskilled.

I dare you to find me a single modern novel that doesn't use some of those tags. And children's stories do not count-as that is the only place you will find your idea of what "not" to use might be valid.