Writer to Writer (2) : I have some trouble with dialogue! I always feel like I’m using the same “he said, she said,” how do you vary your wording to make it more interesting?


I received this quetion on Writer to Writer, where I answer writerly related asks weekly.


1. Said

Do not be afraid of the “said”. Use it again and again, as often as necessary, because our mind usually skips over really simple words when we read. If you keep using words like “he protested, he denied, he complained, he emphasized” you will end up with a manuscript full of weird words and even weirder emotions. In the spirit of showing and not telling, what your character feels should be shown via his words/dialogue. If you have done your job correctly, then you don’t need to add that he “protested” he was innocent. We will know. Just use “said” whenever you need to put a name after the words, so that we know who has spoken. This is especially useful in quick banter.

2. Motion

My favorite way of writing dialogue is without using said or any other “saying” verb at all.

“That’s how you fight?” He laughed.

“That’s how you fight?” John got up to stand behind her.

“That’s how you fight?”

She nodded.

In this last example we are not told who spoke first, but by seeing who reacted, we can tell who it was. There are no “saying” words in the above examples, just action, but that’s enough to tell us who has spoken, if we had been given enough description of the scene and who is participating beforehand. That is a very difficult way to write and to get right, so I have a little tip:Whenever I read a phrase that uses cool dialogue trickes like those, I copy them in a special notebook and then study them later. I have already a collection of a ton of those, and you have no idea how much they have helped evolve my style.I recommend it heartily. (It goes without saying that in order to be a great writer, you should be a great -or huge- reader frist, right? This, among other things, is why.)

3. Emotion

If you want to emphasize the way something was said, it’s better to describe the way it’s said rather than use a word instead of said. 

“He said with emotion.“ 

“There were tears in his eyes.“ 

"A low, hoarse sound.” And so on…. Many readers, myself included, do not like to be told that someone “agreed” they need to see it with a small nod, or feel it with an agreeable, soft tone of voice. Think of it like this: if you couldn’t use any of these “said, protested, agreed, ejaculated” words, then how would you show the way somethinig was spoken? Then write that.


… he said without blinking OR moving his upper lip.

Goor stuff, right? But in all seriousness, this way of writing takes a lot of studying but in the end it’s a pretty direct and powerful way to pack feels into your writing.

4. Use other verbs in moderation.

Asked, exclaimed, yelled, shouted, and so on, are really simple words that can be used in the same way as “said” and the eye will scroll over them, no problem. Also, some of them (like screamed, for example) are kind of action words as well, so they add to the scene rather than take from it.Other than that, shy away from powerful words that indicate communication, as they often look out of place or too much and tend to take the reader off your world. There was a time when such words were used often, like in classical literature, but for the contemporary writer they might read comical and overwritten, so be very wary of them.We don’t want to end up with something like:


you know?

5. Adverbs.

They are your best friends, but again in moderation. If he yells, he can’t yell loudly, it’s redundant. But if he’s in danger, you can do this:“Will you pass me my sword?” he asked, calmly.Of course it’s even better to say “Will you pass me my sword?” His voice wasn’t even shaking.

But if you aren’t quite there yet, an adverb is the perfect way to show how something was spoken, instead of using an over the top word.


If you have ever read any SK books, you’ll know he uses adverbs from time to time. They are words, after all, and that’s your job, to use words in order to build worlds and break people’s hearts.BUT try not to be the kind of “writer” Stephen King wrote this about. There is a place for everything, and if you are “paving a road” with adverbs, then you’re making a mistake.But if you’re sprinkling them here and there (once or twice per chapter, for example) then they are icing on the cake.

These tips are taken from my personal experience so far, and I use every one of them, as much as I can. I hope they help others too!

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