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  • Sarah J Maxwell

I am I said

Dialogue: Do you find it tricky?

Keeping things simple is a useful guideline when writing. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) use purple words plucked from a thesaurus for everyday scenarios. The same can be said for dialogue. Overlook ‘he said’, ‘she said’ at your own peril.

Dialogue loses momentum if it’s jammed full of unnecessary speech tags.

'He retorted', 'she exclaimed', 'they remarked' - redundant tags that irk.


A writer doesn't have to tell the reader who’s speaking. Let the action speak for itself. From Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

“All right – Voldemort.” Hagrid shuddered.


From Billy Lemonade.

"Get off me." I struggled...


Even when there are more than two speaking, if it's obvious, let it flow without the tags.


“Fifty points each,” said Professor McGonagall, breathing heavily through her long-pointed nose.

“Professor – please –“

“You can’t –“

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Potter.”

Written well, dialogue moves the action forward, or reveals something about a character, or a relationship. In the following excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee doesn’t use speech tags, but we are led in with action and have no doubt about, not only who’s speaking, but the dynamic of Scout’s and Jem’s relationship:


Jem stamped his foot. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to even touch the trees over there? You’ll get killed if you do!”

“You touched the house once!”

“That was different! You go gargle – right now, you hear me?”

“Ain’t neither, it’ll take the taste outa my mouth.”

“You don’t’n I’ll tell Calpurnia on you!”


A useful guideline for natural speech is to use alternative tags in order to reinforce - In the court scene in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“Mr Finch has no idea of scaring you,” he growled. The reader has an instant picture of the judge and what about J.K. Rowling’s use of ‘shrieked’ below. Perfect!

“You knew I’m a – a wizard?”

“Knew!” shrieked Aunt Petunia.


Similarly, I don’t think anyone can dispute, Professor Snape should 'snarl' and Voldemort 'hiss'.


Despite Stephen King’s “all roads to hell are paved with adverbs” quote, adverbs, used sparingly, can be useful in speech:


“Yes, Dumbledore’s dead,” said Harry calmly - Atticus asked mildly - muttered Uncle Vernon wildly.


There are times however, when removing an adverb improves the dialogue:


Helga said furiously – Helga spluttered.

Alice said quietly – Alice whispered.

Tess said uncertainly – Tess muttered.


If your goal is to write well, read. You'll get the feel for what 'sounds' natural and what doesn't. Read your own work out loud, you’ll hear if it’s right – or wrong.


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