I try to avoid repeating the prosaic "he said", "she said" structure as much as possible when writing dialogue.

But I think overload of complex descriptors "he articulated", "he intoned" is definitely crappy writing.

What is the general consensus on this matter, though? I would like to know others' thoughts.


5 Answers 5


The confusion with your scene is not "he articulated", "he intoned" but that there is no clear motive or emotion either from the scene itself or coming from either character.

We are told (not shown) what a "normal" interaction with Noah would be, but then we are shown something else(?) but it's unclear whether this interaction is normal or unusual between these characters. The narrator's motives shift abruptly without reason – is the MC flirting? Showing pity for an misunderstood dreamer – a broken or less functional version of herself? Is she a workplace superior trying to encourage a subordinate to focus? Is she a go-alonger who bullies the wrong kind of person because others do? I can't tell because I have been told all of these things within one scene.

Adding to the confusion, there are outside "opinions" flooding into every paragraph it is not at all clear what the actual tone of the scene should be, or how one character feels about the other much less how we the reader are suppose to feel about either of them or their "relationship".

My booming words had their intended effect. They abruptly snapped him out of whatever daze he had been in, making me feel rather guilty for disrupting his precious journey to far-away worlds of his own making. Noah had an extensive imagination---one that outstepped the boundaries of reality and convention. And I adored him all the more for it, although it isn’t exactly a trait that is usually much appreciated. All the more reason for the bullies to label him a dreamy fool who’s prone to colliding headfirst with walls.

The tonal shifts have me completely confused about what you are trying to say. The narrator abruptly yells at Noah in a booming voice, but then feels guilty about his "precious journey" and extensive imagination, which isn't appreciated so he's bullied (like she just did to him?), but she adores him..., but he bumps into walls…. There is no logical build-up or progression to this, it's just a jumble of opposing descriptions all coming from one POV about another character in no particular order. At the end of this paragraph I don't understand how he actually is or even what the narrator's opinion is. She bullies him too, but it seems justified. He doesn't really deserve any better because left on his own his mind wanders uselessly.

By the end of the full passage she is twirling her hair shyly. Wait, wasn't she the one that approached him with a booming voice? But suddenly she is shy and doesn't know what to say. Who is the awkward introvert again? When did he become hot? Isn't this the bullied nerd that bumps into walls?

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No amount of "He said"/"She said" signposts are going to clear up a scene where the tone is confusing, and the narrator's descriptions are a serpentine distraction of what other people not in the scene maybe do and think. Meanwhile the characters themselves have inconsistent reactions that flip-flop between who is leading the conversation.

Show me who these people are at that moment. I never need to read a generalized impression of what faceless people might think about someone – that's the sort of thing that is (for example) shown through interactions with bullies with faces. This gives the narrator the opportunity to have one opinion, then after witnessing some bullying decides she feels something else, she's not sure what, but her behavior and tone changes as she figures it out.

Understand why these two people are interacting, how they will respond to each other, and what results (changes) will come out of this interaction. Use Theory of Mind to give the characters realistic reactions, and when the conversation doesn't go quite as planned let me recognize the change myself through scene dialog and their surface reactions alone. There should always be a primary motive for any interaction (plot) and a secondary unspoken motive (character development) that is creating some dynamic tension. Characters are not aware of their own arc, and they do not recognize their own contradictions when they make them. The character needs to be committed to whatever they are feeling at that moment. Trust the reader to remember and notice when it changes.

Most of all one speaker leads a conversation, the others react, follow, or respond. This conversation dominance doesn't change without a reason. The reader should understand who is speaking just by understanding who is the dominant. Dominant speakers will prompt the others, they will ask the questions, they will state their assumptions and try to get the others to confirm (or conform). The responders will placate, confront, deflect, mirror, or toss out a non-sequitur "happy birthday", but each person's primary motive (what they project) and secondary emotion (what they are not saying) will be present in every line.

"He said" and "he intoned" are for sentence pacing and word rhythm. If the conversation needs a "he said" because you can't tell who is speaking, you need to rethink the scene's conflict and the characters' arcs.

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    "Abrupt" and "booming". I do not have it wrong, these are your words painting a picture of her intent. If there is miscommunication to the reader how will you correct them?
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 14:40
  • 3
    Look at the picture in my answer. More signposts won't make this clearer to understand. You have way too much exposition clutter in the scene, including a flashback to his 1st birthday. This is not how people think while having a conversation. I don't "fill in" factoids about a person's childhood while making smalltalk. Show me the conversation and let it be awkward, rather than telling me each beat is awkward because of CHARACTER FACTOID A, CHARACTER FACTOID B...
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 14:49
  • 1
    I disagree. The only way these people will come to life is by staying present in this scene with them. Having a word-limit is even more reason to stick with only what matters right here and now. You need to focus the scene on this moment between these people, not channel surf through worldbuilding and backstory.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 15:01
  • 2
    I'm not here to insult you. I'm trying to encourage you to communicate 1 thing clearly, and a 2nd thing subtly, rather than piling up a too-small plate with "a little bit of everything" that runs together into mush.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 15:08
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    "Without the details about the character's background thrown in between, no one will really come to life." This is a false premise. The details actually prevent the scene from coming to life. They make it extremely dense and almost impossible to read. If you've only got 1000 words, stop trying to fill in every tiny detail and tell the story you want to tell. Make every word count and let the reader imagine the backstory however they wish. Readers have to contribute to the story to make it art, after all.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 20:53

First, people do not notice "he said" or "she said", and you should use them more often. We expect them, they work, and they are not intrusive; stop thinking they are.

That said: When there are only two people in a conversation, attributions are seldom necessary unless your break the repeated pattern of "One talks, the other talks". Which realistically you might do; sometimes people don't answer, or pause before answering, or sometimes people finish a thought and have an afterthought and voice that.

Absent those special circumstances, put in a "said" every four or five lines of dialogue just to keep the reader oriented.

The practice of combining dialogue with action (as you have done) is alright, but is overdone when the action is superfluous, neither necessary or natural, which seems to be the case in several of the spots of your writing. The actions you are describing do not add anything to the story, in my opinion, and because of that it becomes noticeable you are "fluffing it up" for no purpose. (Well your purpose is to avoid "said" tags, but that is not a valid purpose from the reader's POV, because the tags are nearly invisible to them and professional authors use them all the time.)

IMO Trying to lay all your exposition and back-story in-between lines of dialogue is awkward and causes me to lose track of the conversation altogether.

Exposition isn't bad, it is also part of story telling. The trick is to keep it short, a few lines or a paragraph. It only stalls the story when it starts to dominate a page. Everything you have to say about Noah and his history could be said in a few lines.

As far as the "general standards" of good dialogue, I would say the best dialogue contains conflict, at least for the POV character. This can be banter, or somebody doesn't want to believe what they are being told, or an actual argument, or romantic or social tension.

I think you are aiming for romantic/social tension, that Emmy is attracted to Noah. The conflict is a result of him being either oblivious to her feelings or incapable of returning them, and also a result of her being unwilling to be explicit about those feelings, and approaching them more indirectly, with pretenses.

That is a fine dynamic. But all these places where you use actions to introduce statements, where these actions are meaningless, you could instead be giving us information on what she actually feels or thinks or imagines happening with Noah.

Bring back the "said" tags and do that instead. She can be honest in her own head, and instead of the action tags (and backstory) distracting from the conversation, her thinking about what she feels and is trying to accomplish here will raise the stakes on this conversation, and keep us glued to the conversation happening.

It's the iceberg analogy. What is actually verbalized in a conversation is 10% of the communication; the other 90% for Emma is in her feelings, thoughts, reactions and struggle to make a connection with a boy she wants that happens to not know how to do his half of the work.

For Noah, even though you are not showing his thoughts, the other 90% of this conversation is insecurity, confusion, and social paralysis, because (as you convey by the birthday wishes) he also would like to make this connection, but doesn't want to embarrass himself and ruin any chance of it by blurting out his own feelings. So he is stuck in conversational paralysis, his mind racing but afraid to say anything that might repel or repulse her. So all he's got is banalities.

The birthday wishes is what Emmy should truly pick up on, if she has any smarts at all. Not wandering off into her back story so nothing happens with those wishes. Noah is thinking about her, and personally. That means he's NOT really off in his own world and only talking to her when she happens to show up, he wants at least some of this connection with her too.

That's a key, it should make her feel something good and momentous, and perhaps it unlocks her own reticence and inexperience and gives her the courage to initiate the next step forward with Noah, whatever that might be. Then the birthday wishes mean something to the plot here, they aren't just a throwaway line.

As for the reason she doesn't celebrate birthdays, that is for dialogue later, a personal reveal to somebody in the future. That can have a plot implication too. If it is Noah, much of what we feel about other people is by sharing intimate hardships most others don't know about. Just about everybody is willing to share victories and happy times with even casual acquaintances, but (for most people) you have to be particularly close to somebody to share your heartbreaks with them. We know that instinctively, so when somebody we like and have become friends with does share a heartbreak with us, it makes us feel closer to them, it is a kind of non-sexual intimate moment. You can use that in your fiction, to bring Emmy closer together with Noah (or anybody).

Now I realize that is probably too much for a 1000 word story. But I am adding it as a principle of good dialogue, as you requested.

Dialogue should change hearts and minds (feelings or thinking) of at least one character. That change should be connected to the plot and mean something to the story. It is not a place to shove backstory or other exposition.


Surprisingly, dialogue tags are language-specific. In English, 'said' is considered transparent, the dialogue tag to be used most of the time, as opposed to "intoned", "articulated" etc., which are to be used sparingly. In French, on the other hand, using "said" all the time is considered to show lack of creativity, and a multitude of dialogue tags are commonly used.

Here Monica Celio points out that if it's clear who is speaking, no dialogue tag is necessary at all. How is that achieved? In a scene with only two characters, it is fairly easy - first one, than the other, back and forth. With more characters, other hints can be used: one character might address another by name, for example.

However, for a dialogue scene to work, we need to be in the scene, not drift away into a flashback mid-sentence. Think of a scene as one melody: you can develop it, take it slowly or suddenly from one mood to another. But you can't jump from Bach to Queen, then back to Bach like Queen never happened. It becomes a confused mess. It's hard for a reader to follow such jumps. And even if a reader makes the cerebral effort to follow what's going on, emotionally - you've lost him.

The thing is, a scene has a pacing. We imagine things as they happen on page. We imagine them at normal speed, or the author might fast-forward, or slow-motion particular moments. I sometimes use dialogue tags to fiddle with pacing:

"Well," he said, "I think this is what we should do."

reads differently from

"Well, I think this is what we should do" he said.

But imagine if in the middle of a dialogue scene, a movie jumped into a different scene, then back into the dialogue, then out... What would that do to the scene's pacing? I think that's what @Wetcircuit is trying to say.


Go and read the first chapter of The Business by Iain Banks. It's almost entirely dialogue - no tags, almost no actions other than the dialogue itself. Yet it's clear, easy to understand, and compelling. The scene moves the story forward rapidly, introducing the characters and the start of their problem in an intriguing way.

The important lessons are:

  • as long as your characters have distinctive voices, tags are not necessary
  • sometimes anything other than the dialogue gets in the way. Less is more, as they say.

There is nothing wrong with intoned, exclaimed, yelled or any of the many other terms we use to indicate speech. I agree with the others, but one thing that seems odd to me that has not been mentioned is your dialogue lines occur throughout the paragraph.

One of your paragraphs has two lines of dialogue sandwiched within information dump, which is distracting and unnatural.

Wetcircuit mentioned exposition clutter - it hides your dialogue.

I have seen and used dialogue at the beginning or end of a short paragraph, with minimal exposition but sometimes a character says one thing but thinks another. Under those circumstances my line of dialogue rests on a paragraph.

Breaking up the paragraphs and probably re-evaluating the info dump, sprinkling it throughout or perhaps choosing to place it in that timeless moment of hesitation when your MC is about to shout at her friend might help. Booming words is shouting.

Something like:

We had been friends forever, but now I had my chance. The popular girls had noticed me, wanted to include me, but then there was Noah, the dreamer who is smarter than the rest of us, but he is holding me back. Must cut the ties, or reduce my connection.

He is talking to the air again - no wonder they all bully him. He seems such a worthless mess to those who don’t know him, don’t understand his past and never care to learn. He is what will keep me from the future I deserve. Probably talking to that Theresa. His imagination and intelligence are his best traits, but no loser will keep me from shining at the prom.

“Practicing lines again?” My booming words had their intended effect, jarring him out of his daze.

Turning to me with a start, he said, “Sorry, Em, didn’t see you there.”

Time ticked on, just a few seconds of silence, but it must not last. Why am I nervous? This is necessary. “How are things going?”

Did I really just say that? So embarrassing, but he won’t notice.

“Um....All is fine.”said Noah, what was happening to the girl he knew and liked? She was turning into one of them. Please let it just be until this prom nonsense is over.

Noah began pacing, I used to love listening to his stories, so many worlds conjured by him, so many interesting characters. He might be a poet but one must be sensible. Live in the world we are in.

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