Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


Showing 1-8 of 63 items.

Using 'he said' or 'she said' to indicate who is talking sounds awkward sometimes. How can I change things up but still make it clear who is speaking?

"Said" is the most common verb for dialogue tags, those short phrases that indicate who does the speaking. This is with good reason, as the word is unobtrusive. Yet, it can start to feel heavy handed, particularly if you have an exchange that involves a lot of back and forth between characters.

Sometimes you can simply eliminate the tag. Use content and voice to clarify who is speaking:

"I can't believe we're doing this again," he said.

"Why? This isn't your idea of a good time?"

"Please, let's just drop it."

"If only it were that easy."

Because these two speakers are taking opposite ends of an argument, it's clear who says what for a few volleys without having to use tags.

You can also use action to indicate a speaker. Simply eliminate the tag and replace it with an action that's done by the person who speaks. This is also a good way to expand upon the dialogue:

"Let's attack that list." Jen stood on the end of the grocery cart, ready to be wheeled down the aisles like a child.

"Can we do this without a lot of hoopla?"

The action lets the reader know Jen said the dialogue, and also conveys tone. She's not resigned or angry. She's taking a playful approach to the chore of shopping. And her companion's not exactly in the same sort of mood.

Resist the temptation to overuse other tag verbs in a quest to shake things up. Too many can feel contrived. And the dialogue itself should convey how something was said. Strong verbs can add some zest, but only when well placed and used sparingly.