I'm having a problem that is not addressed by The Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Style Guide I have access to: How does a writer express laughter in fiction?

I have seen no consistent answer. It seems playwriting and screenplays generally include it since actors are taught to say what's in front of them.

The most commonly used expression in prose is ha ha, with numerous variations. However, some feel "inclusion of such expressions are a sign of bad writing."

It is possible to write: Stu laughed and then exclaimed, "So the bug turns into the robot!"

Or one could write: "Ha ha! So the bug turns into the robot!" [Assuming it is understood Stu is the speaker.]

Or even: Laughing, Stu could barely be understood through his chortling: "So the bug--ha ha ha!--turns into the robot, ha ha!"

Is this truly a style issue, or do these have a ranking in terms of readability and fiction preference?

  • 2
    I can't ever see myself writing 'ha ha' (unless I was parodying something). You might look at alternatives for 'said', including 'giggled', 'chortled', 'sniggered', 'laughed' and 'roared'. Jan 31 '16 at 21:12
  • Agreed. I gave some far-end examples for the sake of clarity.
    – Stu W
    Jan 13 '17 at 15:33
  • Do you think this example would work? "Wise Words from a toothpick." Amelia chuckled
    – user24917
    May 14 '17 at 20:10
  • @user24917 Since I wrote my 1st comment, it seems more and more bestselling authors are minimizing bookisms. But there are still plenty of examples of them. In your case I see two options, neither of yours. 1. Amelia chuckled. "Wise words from a toothpick." 2. "Wise words from a toothpick," Amelia said in jest. Basically, bookisms are used like adverbs. You want to modify the reader's "speech" to match the mood beyond said. To use a bookism after the dialogue sort of defeats the purpose. In your case, you are writing that the speaker is chuckling and speaking at the same time.
    – Stu W
    May 15 '17 at 3:42

Write "ha ha" if you want those words spoken, but not for laughter.

Vera rolled her eyes. "Ha ha. Very funny."

Actual laughter is a nonverbal sound and is better described.

Vera's eyes widened. "You mean you—"

A roar of laughter escaped her mouth. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her body shook.

I wouldn't normally spell it out, just as I wouldn't normally spell out the sound of a cough or a sneeze. Of course, there may be rare cases where you want to describe the unusual sound of certain person's sneeze or laugh (often for comic effect), and then you can go to town:

His laugh sounded like a mixture of a masonry drill and a guinea pig squeal: "Hweaww-HEEE-hee-heghgh!"


Your first example is the best, but I would avoid using "exclaimed" - it's generally better to stick with "said" all the time, as words like "exclaimed" tend to draw attention to themselves and away from the actual dialogue, where the focus should be. I would recommend:

Stu laughed and said "So the bug turns into the robot."

or simply:

Stu laughed. "So the bug turns into the robot."

For the third example, I would avoid "chortling" for the same reason that "exclaimed" is avoided. I would suggest:

Stu was laughing so hard that it was almost impossible to understand him. "So the bug turns into the robot."

  • 1
    Thank you, I gave a point, but I disagree with your conclusion to use the word said in most contexts. I use a lot of dialogue. It would be frankly boring in my prose.
    – Stu W
    Feb 1 '16 at 3:59
  • 1
    I'm with Hutch. Use "said." Dialog tags are meant to be not just boring, but practically invisible. May 16 '17 at 18:01
  • @KenMohnkern excellent way of putting it.
    – Hutch
    May 17 '17 at 18:58

Oh God! not the dialogue tag debate . . . again.

Firstly, those who believe 'said' is the only valid dialogue tag and dialogue tags should be invisible are misled. It's fine if you don't write a lot of dialogue - otherwise it's the worst advice possible. - Write a long dialogue exchange using only 'said' as a tag, the read it out aloud. It'll sound like Chinese water torture.

To the OP. There is no ONE way, or a CORRECT way to write most things. Ultimately there is only YOUR way.

Much like words . . . if you use the same word to describe the same action the prose becomes repetitive. You may use all any any method do indicate laughter in the same passage.

"So you see then it's a robot," said Bob.

"I see."

"What's so funny? Why are you laughing?"

"I didn't. I'm not," replied Dave, obscuring his mouth with his hand. "Carry on . . ."

"So the robot . . ."


"What's so funny!"

"Nothing," replied Dave attempting to curtail his laughter. "Gimme one sec . . ."

Bob laughed. "I suppose it is kinda funny."

"Ha-ha!" Dave erupted. "A bug turning into a robot isn't funny. It's ridiculous!"

  • Think I've used most methods.

one interesting thing you might want to consider is the different types of laughters.. we have giggles and laughs and chuckles and grins and chortles and lots more!! (I know the English isn't correct in the statement above.. I was trying to make it a little poetic but in vain)

You might want to consider - http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/laugh?s=t

Hope this helps!!


Any word other than said draws your attention to the tag and not the dialogue. This is creative writing 101. I am twice published and working on my third and I have never had a reader, reviewer or editor complain about my use of the word said.


Handle laughter not as words spoken, but as a physical action.

Looking at my own work, I just say "laughed."

I never write multiple "Ha". I have written,

Jack was amused. "Ha. Then we'll charge 'em for the visit, too."

Richard laughed.

IRL, I hear people sometimes say "Ha" or "Heh" when amused, as an actual word. But I consider an actual laugh an action.

Analogously, I hear "Ow", "Ouch", "Oy" as actual voiced words (depending on culture) that indicate pain was felt, but I wouldn't try to put into voice a scream or other such vocalizations (grunts, moans, crying) that I consider to be more actions than words.

I can't spell out a laugh, or a scream, or the sound somebody makes when sliced by a sword, or the heavy breathing sounds they make when panting after a long sprint.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.