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Situation in fiction writing. Two characters are involved in an exploration of a long-abandoned gold mine. However, dangerous creatures may still lurk there. The two characters will be communicating over the course of a few hours but they need to whisper to avoid being detected. What is the best way to handle this regarding dialogue tags? I want the reader to be aware that they are whispering, but I don't what to have to add that tag after each bit of conversation.

For example:

"We need to be quiet in here," whispered Jim.
"I agree," replied Bill quietly.
"How long do you think we'll be in this place?" asked Jim, in a hushed tone.
"I have no idea," whispered Bill.
"You're kidding!" said Jim too loudly.
"Shhh!" growled Bill as quietly as he could. "You need to whisper in here, or else!"

How often do I need to remind my readers that the characters are whispering (or should be doing so)?

3 Answers 3

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Honestly, I think that so long as you mention the whole conversation was in a whispery tone, it would get the message across.

"The two men crouched down and began speaking in low, soft tones."

"We need to be quiet in here," said Jim. Billy nodded. "I agree."

You don't have to say that "Jim/Billy whispered" so long as you mention it before the bulk of the conversation began.

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  • That's an excellent idea. Thank you!
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 19:50
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You'll probably be most satisfied by this bit of dialogue the more you lean on character reactions and conveying their internal state about being overheard, than focusing on using dialogue tags like whispered, secreted, hissed, murmured, and so on. Certain action beats will also play a good part in a convincing scene. "Billy-Joe-Bob leaned close to my ear, so as to not be overheard. The corn liquor on his breath curled my ear hairs."

The advice I've been given is to abstain from using dialogue tags other than said in 1st drafts. I believe the purpose of that advice is to force the creative use of the dialogue to resemble people speaking in hushed tones -- avoiding bright sounding vowels and hard constants -- and mostly to get the first draft to have a solid use of action beats to establish the movement or action in the scene.

When you are done, with it, if you had a whispered or similar tag in a page of dialogue, you've probably done a decent job. Using a thesaurus to find dialogue tags with the same meaning as whispered defeats the purpose.

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  • Here is an example of a scene from the current rewrite of my first novel. NOTE: both characters are on horses. “Shhhh!” said Sebastion firmly, looking down at Thorgrim. Angry, the knight scolded the dwarf as quietly as he could. "What’s the matter with you? I told you to whisper!” “I’m sorry!” mumbled Thorgrim, embarrassed. “You’re sorry?” hissed Sebastion. “We’ll both be sorry if that dragon hears you!” “I really am sorry!” whispered Thorgrim. “Then be quiet!” In the last line, I shouldn't have to mention Sebastion is the speaker or that he is whispering. Yet he is whispering.
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 14:09
  • @Scott, you are focusing on the act of whispering. It is more effective to reveal the character's reactions and thoughts and actions related to why they are whispering. Being overheard means dying lends a ticking clock to a scene. Needing to keep what they are saying secret lends tension and consequence to the moment, etc and so on.
    – EDL
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 16:01
  • Thank you! Great advice.
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 14:08
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One creative idea might be to use a slightly smaller font, or all lower case or italics. This might appeal to the "visual" readers. :)

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  • Another great idea! Thanks!
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 14:08
  • I think editors/publishers would have a problem with using a smaller font or all lowercase. Italics, however, I think would be a great idea.
    – levininja
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 1:27

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