how to write better dialogue

Remember that exercise you probably did in middle school? It took different forms in different places, but it centered around using words other than “said” to tag dialogue.

You spent a class, or an hour of homework time, getting familiar with words like:

  • Uttered
  • Declaimed
  • Asked
  • Exclaimed
  • Interjected
  • Ejaculated
  • Begged

This exercise has produced more bad written dialogue than any other force in the history of literature, because it set us all up to overthink our dialogue tags.

But never fear!

Crafting better dialogue tags is easier than your middle school English teacher (who probably had an unpublished novel in her desk) led you to believe.

Write Simple Dialogue

With the realization that “said” is fine.

Seriously, it’s totally fine. Most experts agree that the word “said” is invisible. Readers skip over it and register the words around it, identifying who is speaking. That’s what it’s for, and it’s what it does.

There’s a reason almost everybody who needs to drive in a nail uses a hammer. It’s the best tool for the job. For the same reason, it’s absolutely okay for you to use “said” every single time you need to remind a reader who’s speaking.

But it’s also a little boring. Done right, dialogue doesn’t just identify who is speaking. It tells the reader about the speaker’s emotions and situation. It sets up or helps resolve conflict and tension. It’s a powerful part of the very best writing.

I’m going to walk you through my process for crafting dialogue, which is what most reviewers say is the best part of my fiction writing. But before I do that, we need to talk about our friend Tom.

No, not this Tom. That other Tom.

Tom Swifties

Tom Swift was a protagonist in a long series of books that were popular during and around the Depression era. They were fun-enough, pulpy adventures and they were notorious for a specific kind of dialogue tag.

“You dirty rat!” Tom said, angrily.

Never do this. It’s a kind of dialogue tag that’s so clunky and awkward is has become a joke. Literally, a kind of joke, like a knock-knock joke or shaggy dog story. The idea is to take the construction and turn it into a pun:

  • “I’ve dropped my toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen.
  • “The salad dressing has too much vinegar,” Tom said, acidly
  • “The boat is leaking,” Tom said, balefully.

They can get pretty funny if you put your mind to it.

  • “I’ve learned to speak dog,” Tom barked.
  • “You have the right to remain silent,” Tom said, arrestingly.

Or even a little risque.

  • “Put the catheter here,” Tom indicated.

But fun jokes do not make good writing. Stephen King mentions this dialogue sin in his book On Writing, and I agree with his sentiment. Any style of writing that becomes a party game is a bad style of writing.

So what do you do instead?

I’m glad you asked!

4 Steps to Writing Better Dialogue Tags

Overthinking is the enemy of writing good dialogue (and probably all good writing), so this process is very simple. It’s not always easy, but it always follows four steps:

  1. Write a “said-only” first draft.
  2. Cut the fat.
  3. Write Tom Tags.
  4. Wrangle the lines.

Let’s talk about each in detail

1. Write a said-only first draft.

Your first draft is all about momentum. Spend no time even thinking of writing dialogue tags. Just say “_____ said” at the end of every line of dialogue.

I mean every line. If you skip one, even knowing you want to take it out later, it breaks this process. So at first, write _____ said every time somebody talks.

2. Cut the fat.

The most common sin of tagging dialogue is overthinking it. The second most common sin is having too many tags.

So it’s time to cut almost all of them out. Use a Find function in whatever you use to compose your masterpiece and search for the word “said.” Read the conversation around each one, and delete every single one of them that isn’t absolutely necessary.

This means 80 to 90 percent will go. Those that remain will be the ones where a reader might not know who’s talking if the tag wasn’t there, and the ones where you want to tag the dialogue to add context for the reader. Everything else goes away.

3. Write Tom Tags.

In this step, you’re going to identify the exact purpose of each dialogue tag remaining. Do your Find for “said” again, and replace each with a Tom Swifty tag that says what you want to do.

If you want to express that the speaker is angry, write “_____said angrily.” If you want to express stress, write “_____ said nervously.” If the only purpose is to identify the speaker, just leave it as “________ said.”

Do this as swiftly (no pun intended) as you can to keep momentum. We’ll do the heavy lifting in our final step.

4. Wrangle the lines.

Now comes the fun part. Go back to your first Tom Swifty and craft a sentence that accomplishes what you want while eliminating the adjective—and potentially the word “said.” This takes skill, practice, and craft, and is the heart of great dialogue. We’ll talk in a bit about ways to wrangle the lines.

Once you’ve done that, your dialogue tags will be interesting, informative, and often compelling. You’ll have avoided saying “said” too much without making your piece read like that middle school assignment.

Creative Dialogue Tags

There are as many ways to replace “name said adverbially” with excellent dialogue tags as there are thoughts in the universe. Some are good. Some are bad. Some don’t even use dialogue tags. Here are my favorites.

1. Describe action.

Use a description of what the character is doing, or what’s happening around her, to establish what you want to establish.

  • “Stop it!” Jenny said, angrily becomes “Stop it!,” Jenny said. Her hand slapping the table almost drowned out the sound of her voice.
  • “Okay,” Timmy said, trustingly becomes “Okay.” Timmy’s eyes showed nothing but belief that I would keep my promise.

 2. Use the dialogue itself. 

You can sometimes eliminate the need for dialogue tags entirely by fine-tuning the dialogue itself so it does the job of a dialogue tag.

  • “Goodbye” Viktor said, unconcerned becomes “Adios. Don’t let the door hit you, etcetera,” Viktor said.
  • “Really?” Yumiko said, excited becomes “Ohmigod! Really?”

 3. Mimic natural speech.  

This one isn’t a matter of what you write, but rather of where you put what you write. You can add “_______ said” in places that make a piece of dialogue feel more like natural speech. Natural speech is full of pauses and hesitations, and the tag can identify the speaker while also adding those breaks in the rhythm.

  • “Seriously, Johnny, don’t open the blue door. There’s a monster behind it,” Ahmed warned becomes “Seriously, Johnny. Don’t open the blue door,” Ahmed warned. “There’s a monster behind it.”
  • “Let’s take a look. It’s not so bad,” the doctor said as he examined the wound becomes “Let’s take a look,” the doctor said. He examined the wound. “It’s not so bad.”

Imitation Is the Sincerest Form…

One final piece of advice before I send you out to try it on your own: This is one of the parts of writing where it’s easiest to learn by example. Go back to your books with the best dialogue, the conversations that made you laugh out loud or cry a little bit. Examine how those authors tagged the dialogue, and add those techniques to your own writing.

As I said at the beginning, a lot of reviewers have mentioned dialogue as one of my strengths. I would not be strong on dialogue if not for closely reading Joe Lansdale, Robert Parker, Alex Marshall, John Sandford, and Larry Brooks.

Now, it’s time for you to go practice.

Jason said, authoritatively.

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