A common problem many authors make is that they are afraid to use the word “said.” The characters hardly ever “say” something. They shout, whisper, chortle, sneer, interject, retort, etc. Their goal in using these dialogue tags is to make dialogue more lively and dynamic—however, this usually has the opposite effect.
A common piece of advice is to vary your word choice to create richer and more descriptive writing. However, in the case of dialogue, “said” works more like punctuation. The word “said” is so ubiquitous as to be unmemorable: that is its usefulness to the author. The reader’s eye skims over “said,” allowing him or her to focus solely on what the character is saying.
That does not mean you should never have a character shout when they are excited or whisper when they have a secret to share. However, when every single dialogue tag is an alternative to “said,” it can be distracting. It’s as if the characters are hammy actors, gesticulating wildly to get us to pay attention to their lines. Let your dialogue stand on its own.
Substituting supposedly better words for “said” creates the same problem as pulling out the thesaurus “to improve” every piece of description. While the phrase “luminescent viridian orbs” contains a few ten-dollar words, the reader would appreciate simply knowing the hero has bright green eyes.
Telling authors to use different words for “said” does address an actual problem. Dialogue like this isn’t exactly exciting, either:
“You’re the only one I’ll ever love,” he said.
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked. “It’s true,” he said.
“This isn’t serious and you know it,” she said.
Keep “said” in your writer’s toolkit, but also vary the dialogue’s structure by adding in actions and descriptions.
One way to do this is to bring in the character’s thoughts. This is a way to demonstrate a character’s inner conflict; there are many things we think that we don’t let ourselves say. Just remember to keep direct thoughts in the head of the viewpoint character. For example:
“You’re the only one I’ll ever love,” he said. “Being with you is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that,” she protested.
“Stop.” She wondered if the other diners could hear them. “I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.” Why do I have such bad luck with men?
Another way to develop dialogue is to bring in more description. Showing a character’s actions, facial expressions, or body language will bring them alive for the reader. More description can also give us a clearer picture of a scene by having characters interact with the environment. For example:
“Why not? It’s true,” he retorted.
“This isn’t serious and you know it,” she argued.
“Why not? It’s true,” he said. John unconsciously clenched his fist, knuckles whitening. She wondered if he noticed.
A headache pounded behind her temple; the restaurant‘s music was grating.“This isn’t serious and you know it.”
Although revision can seem daunting at first, with just a few changes you can create more dynamic prose. Dialogue is a key aspect of writing fiction, a way to produce memorable and exciting characters. Don’t let your readers become distracted by awkward phrases or word choice; inste