Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II)

The following is the second in a two part, guest blog post from Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, whose short story, “Poetry by Keats,” took home the grand prize in WD’s 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition. You can read more about Trupkiewicz in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest and in an exclusive extended interview with her online. In this post, Trupkiewicz follows up on her discussion of dialogue with an impassioned plea: stick to said

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Welcome back! Part I of this two-part post talked about two key aspects of writing dialogue. First, dialogue isn’t usually the place to use complete sentences because most people in everyday conversations speak in phrases and single words. Second, effective dialogue takes correct punctuation so the reader doesn’t get yanked out of the story by a poorly punctuated exchange.

Remember, the goal in writing fiction is to keep the reader engaged in the story. But don’t give up on writing to spend the rest of your life doing something easier, like finding the Holy Grail, just yet. There’s one more key aspect that makes dialogue effective for fiction writers.

Problem: The Great He Said/She Opined Debate

In Part I, I mentioned learning from my grade school English teacher about complete sentences. Another subject she covered in that class was the importance of using synonyms and avoiding repetition.

To this day, that discussion drives me absolutely crazy.

Thousands of budding writers all over the world heard those words and deduced that they would be penalized if they repeated the word said in any work of fiction they ever wrote. So they dutifully found thesauruses and started looking up other words to use.

I’d like to submit that thousands of budding writers have been misled. Here’s my take:


Do not touch your thesaurus to find another word that means said.

The attribution said is fine. In fact, when readers are skimming along through a novel at warp speed, the word said is just like a punctuation mark—it doesn’t even register in readers’ minds (unless used incorrectly, and it would be hard to do that).

But if you draw attention to the mechanics of your story with dialogue like this, you’re guaranteed to lose your reader in total frustration:

“Luke,” she opined, “I need you.”

“Raina,” he implored, “I know you think you do, but—”

“No!” she wailed. “Please!”

Luke shouted, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You’re being so mean to me,” Raina wept.

With an exchange like that one, you might as well run screaming out of the book straight at the reader, waving a neon sign that says: HEY, DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS ONLY A WORK OF FICTION AND THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T REAL!!!

Why would you nail yourself into your own proverbial coffin like that?

Here’s my advice. Don’t reach for the thesaurus this time. Leave it right where it is on your shelf. You might never need it again.

Instead, if you need an attribution, use said. If you must use something different for the occasional question, you could throw in “asked” for variety, but not too often.

An even better way to use attributions in dialogue is to use a beat of action instead, like this:

“I just don’t know anymore.” Mary folded her arms. “I think I’m afraid of you.”

Harry sighed. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m not very good at this.”

That way, you know who’s talking, and you’ve even worked action and character traits into the conversation. It makes for a seamless read.

Two final thoughts:

First, dialogue cannot be smiled, laughed, giggled, or sighed. Therefore, this example is incorrect:

“Don’t tickle me!” she giggled.

You can’t giggle spoken words. You can’t laugh them or sigh them or smile them, either. (I dare you to try it. If it works for you, write me and let me know. We could be on to something.)

Of course, if you’re using said exclusively, then that won’t be a problem.

Second, let’s talk adverbs. If a writer can be convinced to use said instead of other synonyms, then he or she becomes really tempted to reach for an adverb to tell how the character said something, like this:

“I don’t want to see you again,” Lily said tonelessly.

“You don’t mean that,” Jack said desperately.

“You’re an idiot,” Lily said angrily.

The problem with using adverbs is that they’re always telling to your reader. (Remember that old maxim, “Show, don’t tell”?)

An occasional adverb won’t kill your work, but adverbs all over the place mean weak writing, or that you don’t trust your dialogue to stand without a qualifier. It’s like you’re stopping the movie (the story playing through the reader’s mind) for a second to say, “Oh, but wait, you need to know that Lily said that last phrase angrily. That’s important. Okay, roll tape.”

Why rely on a telling adverb when you could find a better way to show the reader what’s going on in the scene or inside the characters? Try something like this:

Lily turned away and crossed her arms. “I don’t want to see you again.”

“You don’t mean that.” Jack pushed to his feet in a rush.

She glared at him. “You’re an idiot.”

Beats of action reveal character emotions and set the stage far more effectively than an overdose of adverbs ever will.


While a challenge to write, dialogue doesn’t have to be something you dread every time you sit down to your work-in-progress (or WIP). The most effective dialogue is the conversations that readers can imagine your characters speaking, without all the clutter and distractions of synonymous attributions, overused adverbs, and incorrect punctuation.

When in doubt, cut and paste only the dialogue out of your WIP and create one script for each character. Then invite some friends (ones who don’t already think you’re crazy because you walk around mumbling to yourself about your WIP, if you still have any of those) over for dessert or appetizers sometime. Hand out the scripts, assign each person a part, and then sit back and listen. Was a line of dialogue so complicated it made the reader stumble? Do you hear places where the conversation sounds stilted and too formal, or where it sounds too informal for the scene? Does an exchange sound sappy when spoken aloud? Are there words you can cut out to tighten the flow?

And don’t give up your writing to search for the Holy Grail. While the search would be less frustrating sometimes, writing dialogue no longer has to look demonic to you. You know what to do!


In your current WIP, what sticking points and challenges do you find about writing dialogue? Is a character’s voice giving you trouble? Do you worry you’re overusing an attribution? Do you have a totally opposite opinion about adverbs? The rule about writing fiction is that there really aren’t many hard-and-fast rules, so don’t hesitate to share!

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Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz is an author, poet, blogger, book reviewer, and freelance editor and proofreader. She writes full-length thrillers as well as short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her blogs are Engraved: All About Writing ( and Daily Poetry Prompts ( and you can find her on one of her websites at or Refiner’s Fire Editing ( Follow her on Twitter: @ETrupkiewicz. She lives and writes in Colorado with cats, chocolate, and assorted houseplants in various stages of demise.

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5 thoughts on “Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II)

  1. AvatarRandMarks

    Having recently read a former script writer’s early novel (“Redshirts” by John Scalz) where every line of dialog ended with the character’s name and “said” or occasionaly ”asked” I completely disagree. The word “said” acted nothing “like a punctuation mark” to this reader as you claimed. Instead it acted as big neon sign saying “AMATEUR!” and took me out of the story. The word “said” appeared literally (I do mean literally) hundreds of times in the novel and long before the last page I wanted to scream.

    You clearly wrote your Raina and Luke dialog example to be as bad as possible in an attempt to prove that using varied dialog tags is bad and just using “said” is good. But to prove that you would have needed to show an alternative example of the sane dialog using just “said.” You didn’t, so allow me to.

    “Luke,” she said, “I need you.”

    “Raina,” he said, “I know you think you do, but—“

    “No!” she said. “Please!”

    Luke said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

    “You’re being so mean to me,” Raina said.

    Sounds awfully redundant to me. And it still screams out, “HEY, DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS ONLY A WORK OF FICTION AND THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T REAL!!!”, because the tags weren’t the only bad writing in the passage.

    Now let’s take a more balanced approach with the same dialog using less dramatic but more varied tags and different tag placements and see how it reads.

    “Luke,” Raina opined, “I need you.”

    “Raina, I know you think you do, but—” he began.

    “No!” she interrupted. “Please!”

    “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Luke shouted.

    Weeping Raina said, “You’re being so mean to me.”

    It’s not great – I worked around the dialog you created – but it’s still preferable to the other two examples.

  2. Avataratemp

    I often run across (as I have here) the claim that using dialogue tags other than said or asked will brand one as a novice.

    This oft-repeated truism is demonstrably false, and it’s time to drive a stake through its heart. No few established, even famous authors commonly and gleefully employ tag verbs that go way beyond said or asked.

    A recent novel by a bestselling author J. A. Jance features these tag verbs, among others: Added, Admitted, Advised, Agreed, Allowed, Answered, Asked, Assured, Began, Called, Called after, Cautioned, Chimed in, Commanded, Corrected, Croaked, Declared, Demanded, Echoed, Explained, Groused, Growled, Grumbled, Inquired, Insisted, Interjected, Managed, Muttered, Nodded (!), Observed, Ordered, Pleaded, Repeated, Replied, Returned, Smiled (!), Sneered, Sniffed (!), Sobbed, Suggested, Told, Urged, Whined, Whispered.

    I mean, how can one “Nod” an utterance?

    So is Ms. Jance is a “novice”?

    Please answer how is it that established, prosperous authors can go to town in creative tag verb usage even as literary “authorities” endlessly browbeat new authors into sticking to boring old “he said” and “she asked”?

  3. AvatarJillyJ

    I think it’s about balance. It’s jarring when every dialogue tag is different, especially with words like “opined” which in context don’t often make a lot of sense. But sometimes, switching up “said” conveys something valuable.

    Whispered is a great descriptor. Are there other ways to indicate a whisper? Of course. But when I can just say he whispered something why write a bunch of other words so I can stick to “said”? Whispered is sort of to the point.

    Also, I could remind the reader repeatedly in the narrative that my character has a sore throat or just write, “Lucky you,” he rasped. Because “showing” a raspy voice is a lot of words that may not forward the scene. It could be that I’ll use descriptive beats on occasion, but bother times, I’m just gonna use rasped.

    A lot of the time a plain old said/asked is absolutely best. But I find the worst advice tends to come in absolute rules. Two “absolute” rules I routinely ignore: 1) just use said. 2) never use said.


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