Allow me to set a scene. A young aspiring novelist sits in their single-digit-grade classroom, listening intently to their teacher’s advice on writing effectively. One thing in particular stands out to them: the idea that they should vary their word choices. After all, who wants to read a piece full of generic terms like “really big” or “very bad?” Better by far to use interesting, attention-grabbing descriptions, like “enormous” or “terrible.”
Some time later, our young writer sits down to write a story. Eventually, they get to a section of dialogue and notice that the word “said” occurs pretty much every line. “This will not do!” they think, and begin coming up with ways to weed out the “said”s. By the end of the night, their dialogue looks something like this:
“But what if they catch us?” Amanda wondered.
Todd shrugged. “I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he remarked.
“That’s just like you to say,” groaned Izzy. She twiddled her thumbs for a second, then added, “Amanda’s right. If the monitors catch us in the secret passage, we need a plan.”
Todd rolled his eyes, but mumbled, “Okay.”
“I think we should split up,” Amanda stated. “They’ll have a harder time following more than one —”
“Bad idea,” interrupted Kevin, looking up briefly from his Rubik’s cube. “That just gives them more chances to catch one of us.”
This, of course, is poor writing. Dialogue tags are not meant to draw the reader’s attention, but to point out who is speaking. The word “said,” which goes largely unnoticed by most readers, performs this job admirably, and its replacement often has unpleasant results. By placing attention-grabbing words in their dialogue tags, the writer essentially takes the reader’s focus away from their characters and puts them on the writing, and by extension themselves. Eventually, this adds up to make the writing look overwrought and the author pretentious.
In literary circles, such verbs are known as “said bookisms,” and generally regarded as a red flag for an amateur writer. Of course, the presence of said bookisms doesn’t mean a work is bad, but it usually indicates that the text is in need of an editor. There are, of course, places where unconventional verbs can be used effectively, but they should still be used sparingly… and some particular verbs should never be used at all.
So here, I present ten of my least favorite verbs to see in a dialogue tag. While the category of said bookisms also delves into adverbs and the occasional accompanying action, the verbs are usually the ones that slap me in the face.
Hello, pretension. I seriously cannot read this word in a dialogue tag without rolling my eyes. I think the problem with it is that it’s always used to make whatever a character says IMPORTANT or DRAMATIC, which in turn makes me picture the characters chewing the scenery and milking the giant cow. If an author needs to force drama by putting “uttered” in the dialogue tags, they clearly aren’t doing their job right; and if the dialogue would be dramatic without the “uttered,” then there’s no reason for it to be there. “Stated” is similarly unnecessary, but somewhat less pretentious, as are “spoke” and “told.”
It was difficult to figure out which “noise” dialogue tag to put here. “Hissed” is a common example of a much-abused dialogue tag, but there are at least cases of it being used appropriately. “Snorted” is roughly the same, although it is much more difficult to find its good instances. “Grunted,” on the other hand, is one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen used well, because how exactly does one “grunt” a line? Like “gasped,” “grunted” could only really work on a monosyllable; however, the act of grunting seems like it would drown out pretty much anything.
#8: Burst Out
I actually read this in a published work once. The resulting facepalm left my forehead aching for several minutes. “Blurted out” and “forced out” are bad enough, but they at least sound like something you could do with dialogue, and could be okay in the right circumstances. “Burst out,” on the other hand, makes me picture the words erupting from the character’s chest in a shower of gore, like the xenomorph in Alien. It’s pretty much impossible to take it seriously.
Pop quiz: is your character a political figure enacting a new law or making an important announcement? If not, don’t use “proclaimed,” and if so, no, the answer is still “don’t use ‘proclaimed.'” This fits in with “uttered” as a word often used to force drama, but has the added benefit of making your dialogue sound like a legal brief. Other words with the same effect include “disclosed,” “alleged,” “attested,” and “notified.” “Announced” is in a similar category, but as much as I hate it, there is very occasionally at least some excuse for that one.
This particular bookism may be somewhat subjective, because for me, it comes with an association. I have almost always seen this verb used for dialogue from a character type I absolutely despise: the annoyingly perky girl whose author was aiming for The Pollyanna or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but missed the mark and created a caricature straight out of the Valley of Saccharine Hell. Trilling one’s lines seems to be a symptom. Other verbs to watch out for include “chirped,” “chimed,” and “lilted.”
I considered several “laughing your lines” verbs for this slot. I’m not entirely sure how one goes about laughing, chuckling, chortling, giggling, cackling, or snickering a line, especially if said line is longer than a few words and still easily understood by the surrounding characters. I think the factor that made “chortled” stand out is the fact that it’s just a weird, unappealing word. This is the kind of word that won’t just pull a reader out of the scene to roll their eyes at the over-embellished dialogue tags; this is the kind of word that will make a reader cringe.
If your character realizes things out loud, that’s fine, but please don’t state it outright like this. Using “realized” as a line of dialogue is basically a sneaky way of telling rather than showing. Give us a facial expression or a character tic: a flash of the eyes, a sudden smile, or a wave of one hand as the realization hits. The same goes for tags like “remembered” or “recalled.”
This one represents the category of “words that at least 90% of your readers will have to look up in the dictionary.” It’s annoying enough when an author uses such words in their prose; using them in the dialogue tags as well is just crass. Other words in this category include “demurred,” “asseverated,” “expostulated,” “descanted,” “promulgated,” “hectored,” “expatiated,” “adduced,” “propounded,” and “remonstrated.”
Nobody can smirk a line of dialogue. They also cannot sneer, grin, flutter, smile, frown, cringe, grimace, or shrug said line. If you’re going to use an unconventional verb in your dialogue tag, it should at least be a verb that can be used for speech. At least “chortled” and “grunted” are sounds.
At this point, I wish to make a statement: while not all of the “other examples” I have mentioned are things I have seen in published works, the headliners are. So yes, I have seen this dialogue tag “in the wild,” and not just in a published novel, but in a bestselling one. I suppose that goes to show that “bestselling” does not mean “best quality,” because I’m pretty sure that this became a dialogue tag on account of a typo… or at least, I would like to think it did. The fact that it happened more than once might throw a wrench in that theory. Regardless, I don’t think anyone reading this has to be told why “hesitated” is a terrible dialogue tag. To add to the horror, I have seen this same mistake made with “paused.”