How to write the stuff around the dialogue

Flip open any book, and you’re sure to find them: dialogue attribution using verbs other than “said.” Breathed, whispered, inveighed, called, shouted, yelled, extrapolated, interdicted, translated, interpreted—there are literally hundreds of verbs for speech.

But despite that, “said” is still the default dialogue tag. Yes, every book on the market contains speech verbs other than said—but that’s a big reason why “said” is the default dialogue tag: because other tags are so noticeable. “Said” is practically invisible; we read it without really noticing it, while other dialogue tags call attention to themselves.

Now, sometimes that’s necessary—it can be really hard to convey that someone is speaking softly more succinctly than with “she whispered.”

Possibly better than overusing “said” or other more exotic varieties of speech attributions, we can find other ways to make it clear who’s speaking—either because it’s person B’s turn (when you only have two people in a conversation), or through the use of an action, thought or setting anchor in a separate sentence with that character’s dialogue.

My basic guidelines for speech & action tags are this (read this list as a hierarchy: if I don’t do #1, I go to #2, etc.):

1. Make sure who is speaking/how they’re speaking is clear from the context.

2. Assign the speaker a revealing, personalized action to make the speaker/tone/subtext clear.

3. Use a vividly written “dialogue cue” to show the tone/delivery (i.e. “The inward groan comes out in my voice” or “An edge of a warning hangs in his tone”). (Dialogue cue is a Margie Lawson term.)

4. Use “said” if the speaker isn’t obvious (i.e. only two people are talking and we KNOW who said the last line, and it’s the other person’s turn).

5. Use another fairly common dialogue tag (whispered, asked, replied, etc.) if you have to show how the line is delivered and all other methods have failed. The more unusual the dialogue tag, the more attention it calls to itself—distracting from the dialogue and the story.

6. Balance the use of dialogue and action tags throughout the scene.

7. Err on the side of clarity.

Or, in handy flow-chart form:

As crazy as this looks, this is a lot like what my mind does almost automatically (almost) when writing and editing dialogue. It’s something I’ve learned, because while I’m good at what goes in the quotes, I have a natural tendency to not write any speech verbs—and that’s even harder to follow.

What do you think? And what do you think about when you write?

Quotation mark photo by Quinn Dombrowski

One thought on “How to write the stuff around the dialogue”

  1. I was so excited when I learned about dialogue beats. They’re great.

    “The more unusual the dialogue tag, the more attention it calls to itself—distracting from the dialogue and the story.”


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