I have one big problem with my writing - when I'm doing dialogue, I find myself writing it and following it with "said Character" quite a lot.

I can mix it up sometimes by using a synonym or descriptive way to indicate the character said something (such as: "Blah blah blah" droned Character, or "Hum tee tum" sang Character jubilantly) but it still feels very forced to tag all my dialogue with a character's name each time.

During dialogue-heavy scenes, where characters might be talking back and forth a lot, how can I avoid the repetitive "said Character" tags at the end of each quote?

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    This question is one of the reasons they say "If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader." - The more you read, the more you start to pick up cool tricks on how to solve these small situations. – corsiKa Oct 31 '17 at 20:54
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    It's important to note that you shouldn't get rid of all dialogue tags ("he said", "she said"). Having a balance is important; dialogue tags should be "invisible," but they help communicate logical pauses to the reader without giving every piece of dialogue its own action (which ends up sounding like a chaotic screenplay where every character is constantly fidgeting with her hair or furrowing his brows). This article does a better job of explaining it than me: scribophile.com/academy/…. – The Spartan Nov 1 '17 at 14:11
up vote 45 down vote accepted

You don't always have to tag "said" after every line said. You can do something like:

"Why do you always look at me that way?" She turned her head away, embarrassed as she recalled all the times she caught him glancing at her while working.

"Because the sparkle in your eye, and the radiance of your smile could only be because you are an angel that fell from heaven."

"Do you always use such corny lines to pick up women?" She smiled at his attempt to be cheesy. Admittedly, she thought it was cute at the same time.

You don't have to put said after every line, and even when you give "tags" to quotes, you don't even have to use said. Notice how I used other ways to fill the trailing of a quote.

So feel free to skip a line or 2 with the he said she said stuff as long as it is just 2 people talking. Most people understand when you change lines, it's a new person and if you established it is just 2 people talking, they can follow who is who as long as you give tidbits here and there on who is what in the convo.

"Character said" really is one of the best ways to tag dialog.

When we write we are hyper-aware of our word choices and sentence structure. We don't like to repeat ourselves and we hate seeing all those "said"s stack up because they seem cumbersome and repetitive.

However, reading is an entirely different story. A well written story will immerse the reader in the experience of reading. Their brain will actually tune some repetitive things out, and the word "said" is one such thing.

Let's take a look at this:

"I don't care for these eggs," said Mable.

You see "said Mable" because you are thinking critically about words and structure, but the reader will rarely be consciously aware of the words "said Mable." Instead, they will only be conscious of the proceeding sentence; their brain will seamlessly absorb the fact that Mable was the person who said it.

It's also worth noting that when only two people are talking, you can often cut out dialog tags after the first quotation or two. People will understand that paragraph breaks indicate alternating speakers.

For example:

"I don't care for these eggs," said Mable.

"I thought you liked eggs," said Jake.

"I do like eggs, but these eggs are far too runny."

"You're so picky, but I can cook them a little longer if you'd like."

That's pretty easy to follow, right?

Finally, I strongly discourage adding unnecessary descriptions to what characters are doing in the dialog tags. Whenever you do it, the reader is forced to shift modes, and doing it too often can bring them out of immersion. This is includes using adverbs to describe how characters are speaking. Whenever possible, make feeling clear through word choice, not through line delivery. Over describing dialog is a very widespread beginner mistake. You may be surprised by how much more natural your writing becomes when you stop doing it.

Good luck with your writing!

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    So long as you don't go too long without tags in your dialogue, this is good advice. Stephen King gives much the same advice in his book On Writing. – Jack Aidley Oct 31 '17 at 20:21
  • Yes, some times less is more. You are right that adding in too much takes away from the story and in particular, the dialogue. As with everything else, in proper moderation and balance. Also as you said, proper build up of a scene leading into the convo helps the reader too! – ggiaquin16 Oct 31 '17 at 20:27
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    The written word 'said' is easy to skim over as a reader. Not so much as a listener. I have returned audiobook purchases because too many 'said's spoiled my enjoyment of the work. Balance in the length of the period between dialog tags is very important. – Timbo Nov 1 '17 at 19:31
  • Thank you for bringing that up, @Timbo. That problem can be mitigated in most cases by omitting dialog tags when unnecessary (see my second example). Beyond that, though, books and audiobooks are different media with different needs. It's usually not possible to optimize a text for both, and since books are usually written to be read rather than listened to, I still believe 'said' is generally the way to go. – Dinopolis Nov 1 '17 at 19:50
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    Your second example is good and the author whose work I returned could have learned well from it. I would still recommend interspersing the neutral 'said' with action or emotive tags occasionally. Your concern about making the reader switch modes is well-founded, but this can be minimized e.g. by changing just the first line of your second example to: Mable dropped her fork and frowned. "I don't care for these eggs." Only one mode switch, and most likely we're just translating an existing mode switch from the implied previous line to this one. – Timbo Nov 1 '17 at 20:12

One of my favorite ways to do this is with action tags.

A deep blush raced up her cheeks. "Why are you staring at me?"

He smiled and dropped his gaze. "I can't help it. You're amazing."

"Oh! Well..." she turned her eyes up to him, blushing again. "I guess that's...that's okay, then."

Something like that. (Sorry @ggiaquin, I grabbed onto your great example.)

For more than two people, the same principle works, but you'd use proper names in the tags to distinguish the speakers.

Hope that helps!

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    Na man, great way to supplement what I said with a different example! We are all here to help each other! – ggiaquin16 Oct 31 '17 at 16:45
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    That's fine, but doing that it every line of dialogue would probably be worse than adding "said so-and-so" to every line. People who are talking don't usually do something identifiable each time they speak. – David Richerby Oct 31 '17 at 20:31
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    @DavidRicherby True, but no one should use ONE technique throughout a novel-length work for something like this. EVERY method will become boring and/or annoying if overdone. A variety of ways to do something will help make a stronger writer. I don't claim the only way to do it is with action tags, I'm offering it as a way for the OP to avoid using speaker tags with all dialog. Besides, people in fiction do NOT always do things people in REALITY do. Just sayin'. – Josh Oct 31 '17 at 20:40

This subject is under constant debate, but the standard advice is to keep dialogue tags simple. I follow these guidelines:

  • Use a proper noun followed by a verb. The verb-noun construct is passive and technically improper. "Said he" technically means some unknown subject said the word "he".
  • Use "said", such as "he said" or "she said". It is the ubiquitous attribution that offends no one when not overused.
  • Avoid adverbs. Instead of writing "he said loudly", either change the verb to one that means saying loudly, such as "shouted", or attribute the loudness in the dialogue beat.
  • Use words besides "said" but only if they are called for: emotional
    impact, descriptive need, or tone. See Dialogue words: 100 alternatives to make your dialogue pop and other such sites for alternatives.
  • Use beats, the prose between dialogue, to make attributions through actions.

    "Run!" Johnny charged for the forest, not waiting for the group. "Hurry!"

  • Skip attributions altogether when it is clear who is speaking. It
    might be back and forth banter like a tennis game of dialogue and
    easy to follow or a person's manner of speech or tone might be a
    giveaway.
  • Avoid redundancy. Use only one attribution in a paragraph. Don't use "asked" when you use a question mark (use "said").
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    "Said he" is not passive and not "technically improper". It's a variant word order that some people think is bad style in contemporary writing (see the following following ELU post: english.stackexchange.com/a/51555/77227). Either word order is grammatical. – sumelic Nov 1 '17 at 19:03

While there is some wonderful advice in here, this is also a very common and (somewhat) contentious topic.

As others have pointed out, there are essentially three ways of crafting dialogue. The first, is to use 'said'.

"I can't believe you would do that," she said.

Of course, this can become somewhat boring, or monotonous. This is often the place where writers make a very common mistake:

"I just had to. It was funny!" he snickered.

I once had a mentor who put it like this: people don't laugh things, they don't chuckle things, or smile them, etc. They say things. Everything else is a beat. In simplest terms, a beat is an action. With my students, I love to use an example like this:

"Get out of here," her cheeks flushed red she found the nearest plate and threw it at the wall next to his head. "I said get out!"

The idea here is that we show more depth to what is happening by showing our readers the emotion versus just telling them. By using beats, our readers are pretty well aware that she likely isn't saying these words calmly, or chuckling, or anything like that. She is yelling, she is angry, and whomever "he" is likely did something to upset her.

Part of the effectiveness of beats comes in our ability to paint a picture with the actions of the characters, and not just their words. Beats can quickly become ineffective when they are just being used in place of said. While characters rarely just stand there talking, it is possible. More importantly, when was the last time you held a conversation and did something every time you spoke? Our goal is to emulate natural conversation as much as possible while still telling a story. Embellish a bit, but not so much that we are making our characters feel fake.

Also note that adverbs rarely, if ever, will hold a place here. Many writers (whether this opinion is high brow or not) regard adverbs as lazy writing. This is generally due to the fact that a description of the action is far better than telling your reader how the action was taken.

He rolled out of bed with his legs still limp as they met the floor. The alarm clock was on the ground, shattered to pieces, and his torso was wrapped in a dual-blanket cocoon.

is much better than

He rolled out of bed lazily.

See the difference? Not to say the first example is great by any means, or that the second example is bad, but show don't tell reigns supreme.

There is a book called "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" that covers this subject, as well as quite a few others, in great detail and it is a fantastic read if you are serious about your craft. I highly recommend it!

Just jump to script form:

Alice: I must get this to Bob!
Eve: You stand no chance!
Alice: Never-the-less, I must try anyway!

Alice tossed the message over Eve's head.
But Eve, broomstick in hand, stopped the flying envelope.

Bob: Why'd you do that?
Eve: Ha ha ha! Now I got the passwords!
Bob: I was asking Alice
Alice: I thought she'd never reach it

If you're writing a college paper, this might be a no-no.
If you're writing a theatrical script, this might be the norm.
If you're writing a book, then you may not want to do this if you only have 2 lines of dialog (as the benefits might not be worth the cost of confusion brought on by introducing a unique format).

Sort of like slang: Often best avoided for formal writing. However, if you're quoting somebody and the phrasing seems to be especially emotionally moving, it may be worthwhile. Judges may be more prone to give leniency when the technique is masterfully done by a person whose experience is clear, and be harsher against a student who has a track record demonstrating a need to be adept at being capable of following the rules.

Changing styles may be worthwhile if that is the most effective way to ease the reading. My basic rule in writing (and speaking) is this: do whatever works well. (Especially in writing: try it. Didn't turn out well? Then toss the experiment's results and try something else.)

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    Assuming Zibbobz isn't writing a script, I don't think this is the best option. You don't often see this sort of thing in novels or similar works. – Dinopolis Nov 1 '17 at 15:05
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    This would generally only be appropriate for script writing. If you tried using this in a novel (especially if you are previously unpublished) you will have a truly difficult time trying to get published. – Brandon Barney Nov 3 '17 at 11:55

I recommend using 'said' plus an appropriate adjective. Adding these sorts of little descriptions can really spice up a scene, and make it stick in the reader's mind.

For instance:

"I was fleeced on that meal," Tom confessed sheepishly.

"Why was that? Was it because of how disgusting and awful the fruit was?" Gatsby droned dolefully.

"No, to be honest, it was because of how bad the hot dog was," he replied frankly. "But what happened to your debutante friend?"

"Oh, she left, but I don't really care," Gatsby said lackadaisically. "Did you see her?"

"Yes, I think she maybe, possibly, didn't go over the fence, but actually could've instead gone through the plants," he hedged. "Hey, is the radio working yet?"

"Almost... almost... there! It sounds good now!" Gatsby cried out ecstatically.

These are called Tom Swifties, by the way. They're a dialogue tag that all high-class writers definitely have the option of using.

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    To be a true Tom Swifty, the choice of word must form a sort of pun with what is being said, see episystechpubs.com/2015/06/05/editors-corner-tom-swifties However, while there's a certain joy in the writing style, it usually distracts from your dialogue and gets the reader concentrating on the words on the page rather than what is happening in your story. – Jack Aidley Nov 1 '17 at 12:11
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    These tend to work best in tongue-in-cheek writing. – docwebhead Nov 1 '17 at 17:12
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    This is everything you should not do. Plus, I think you mean adverb, not adjective. – Mark Baker Nov 2 '17 at 15:27
  • @JackAidley Well, these examples are all Tom Swifties. But I agree that they're not appropriate in most writing contexts. – MissMonicaE Nov 2 '17 at 20:27
  • @MissMonicaE Yes, the examples are all Swifties but the description is incomplete. – Jack Aidley Nov 3 '17 at 8:16

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