Let your dialogue do the talking

writing dialogue

Dialogue tags are not the place to get creative if you want to draw your reader in. Leave that to the dialogue itself.

I’ve never met a writer, whether working on an epic fantasy novel or a true-life account of a harrowing experience, who hasn’t wanted her reader to get completely lost in the words on the page. While there are many things that separate fact from fiction, there’s one thing that all writers ignore at their peril: a good, hard, honest self-edit.

Let’s talk dialogue. Fiction writers learn quickly that there’s nothing as terrible as stiff, unrealistic dialogue to pull a reader out of the story. And while non-fiction writers can’t falsify direct quotes, there’s plenty they can do to ensure the flow is natural. The first place to start is by cutting out as many dialogue tags as you can.

You want the reader to read right over those tags as if they’re not there. Dialogue tags exist for only one purpose: to identify for the reader who is speaking in your manuscript. That’s it. You want the focus on the dialogue itself. You don’t want readers to get distracted by the tag.

This is one of the most common mistakes new writers make. They think words like asked or said are boring or repetitive, so they try to use more interesting alternatives.

Trust me: dialogue tags are not the place to get fancy. Dialogue tags should melt into the background. Said and asked are all you need. Resist the urge to use queried instead of asked, or exclaimed instead of said. All those flourishes will do is tell readers you’re a newbie.

If you’re writing creative non-fiction, you get to have some fun and create dialogue in your story. It doesn’t have to be verbatim, as long as it’s true to your telling of the story.

There’s also the tendency to use the dreaded –ly adverb in your dialogue tag.

Consider this: Dialogue tags are not the place to convey emotion – the dialogue itself should do that. If you think you need an adverb to convey emotion, your scene needs to be written so the character’s dialogue and actions more clearly express that emotion. It’s the difference between showing and telling.

Here’s an example we use in AutoCrit when explaining the problem with adverbs in dialogue.

“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.

This simply tells us that Simon is angry. But that emotion isn’t demonstrated through his actions or the dialogue itself.

Remember what we said earlier about dialogue tags: Readers read right over them. Their only purpose is to tell the reader who is speaking.

So if you want the reader to feel Simon’s anger, you have to show them through the dialogue itself. Here’s how you might do it:

“You disgust me. This conversation is over,” Simon said.

Here, Simon’s words are angry, so you don’t need to rely on the adverb angrily to convey that. The dialogue is stronger and the emotion is clear.

You could also include some brief actions or descriptions to eliminate the adverb and convey the character’s emotion.

For example:

Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over.”

The actions and description here help show how Simon feels, so we can easily eliminate the word angrily from that dialogue tag.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you are telling a story. Dialogue is one of the most powerful elements in storytelling.

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Read More
Using beats to bring your dialogue to life
Why do you need professional editing for your novel?
Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing
How to revise your novel through a read-aloud and critique workshop
Janet Fitch’s 10 tips that can help any writer


  1. This is always a good reminder. It’s easy to get bored of using ‘he said’ ‘she said’, but it’s important to remember that most of the time these tags are overlooked anyway. Readers want to get to the good part – the dialogue!

  2. Jocelyn, I don’t think I can disagree with you any more vehemently. First as a voracious reader long before I became an author. A major turnoff for me was to constantly see, either ‘said’ or ‘asked’ for a tag. Normally, I put the book down and find something else. I don’t like repetitive words of any kind.
    One of my favorite authors is Edgar Rice Burroughs…I probably have ninety percent of everything he wrote. I post his favorite quote on my web site. “I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.”
    It was a rare thing to see the same tag twice in succession. If I start to notice the tag, then it’s too repetitive. While I would prefer to use an action line:
    Jena reached around and shook her hand. “Wow, talk about a strong family resemblance…Let me introduce you to my husband.”
    Loraine smiled. “For a minute, it was starting to sound like old home week and I was odd man…uh, woman out.”
    I cut my teeth writing screen and teleplays and never got into the habit of using tags, but I will use them when necessary. “Come on,” he whispered to Loraine and began to walk their way.
    If it’s not feasible to use an action line, I will use a tag, but never (per Burroughs) the same one twice in a row. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • I think it depends on whether you wan the dialogue to be brisk, and whether you are using it to carry as much of he story as possible. Varying the tags, especially with adverbs and highly descriptive verbs, seems to me to be calling attention to the writer.

  3. I’m in total agreement – show the emotion rather than use adverbs. I’ve also found as I work through a revision on my current mystery novel, eliminating any tags at all keep the reader from getting distracted. Naturally the author must be careful to make it obvious whose “turn” it is to speak.

  4. I thought that this page really summed up well some useful information in an informative way that brings out the best in writing and how to make success with it. It clearly explains very cleverly how to write proper descriptions and how to put realistic speech in writing when you want to mention what characters are going to say so that it sounds like someone talking. It shows you very simply how this should look on paper. This is definitely the way I would make this come through in my writing and my words are always strong by using this style.

    I cannot agree more succinctly. It certainly is going to look right doing it this way rather than trying to write direct speech that sounds flimsy and looks like it doesn’t drop off the tongue in the way it reads. Then if you do it like it is suggested on this page it will read better.


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