When it comes to dialogue, throw away that thesauraus.

I often get asked to read someone’s unpublished manuscript, or their published book, and I can’t get past the first few pages. Why? Often it’s because of all the dialogue tags. Those are pesky distractions that snag the smooth flow of prose. And the most common ones are understandable, because we’re taught early on, as children, to use a thesaurus rather than repeat the same words.

In order to avoid overusing the word “said,” these authors will have their characters snort, hiss, rasp, chortle, giggle, laugh and weep. The problem is that they do all this instead of speaking. Example:

“I hate these stupid dialogue tags,” he spat.

This is an example of a dialogue tag that’s called a pleonasm. Pleonasms are bad. I don’t mind seeing them once in a while — I use them occasionally in my own books. But I start to get annoyed when I see them in every single sentence on every page.  Example:

“I can’t stand all these dialogue tags,” he spat.

“Why?” she sighed. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Because,” he hissed, “they interfere with the dialogue.”

One criticism of dialogue tags like this is that you can’t speak and laugh/giggle/hiss/rasp/chortle etc and speak at the same moment. I find them annoying for a different reason: they don’t disappear when you read the dialogue, the way “said” does. You notice them. And you shouldn’t.

This criticism applies equally to dialogue where in order to avoid over-using the word “said,” the writer replaces it with variations like countered, responded, muttered, murmured, replied, answered, and so on. Yes, you can do this sometimes. But here is the rule: “said” works much better than any variation you can use, and it vanishes. No one pays attention to it when they read. Whereas whatever you replace it with stands out. And you don’t want that–you want dialogue tags to be invisible.

This construction, for example, has no dialogue tags in it except “said”:

“I can’t stand all your dialogue tags,” he said angrily.

“Why?” she said, sighing. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Because,” he said,  practically hissing, “they interfere with the dialogue.”

Notice how the word “said” is almost invisible?

When you replace “said” with other words too often to show what an accomplished writer you are, you actually bring down the quality of your writing. Some agents see pleonasms as the mark of an amateur. I do too.

My advice? Toss out the thesaurus when it comes to writing dialogue. When Dick and Jane played with their dog Spot, they weren’t rasping, chortling, or gurgling. They said things in plain English. So should you.

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3 Responses to When it comes to dialogue, throw away that thesauraus.

  1. Ross Brown says:

    I say, great post!
    When I have two characters engaged in a conversation, I tend to leave out “said” after the first line spoken by each character. If a reader is following, he or she will know who is doing the talking.
    If the dialogue goes on too long, I’ll add a “he said” just to reaffirm who is doing the talking.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I think that’s the right way to handle it, Ross. We’re really just using “said,” which is also a dialogue tag, to let us know who is speaking. It’s the use of those pesky substitutes for it that I’m really commenting on here.


  2. ihalsband says:

    Good dialogue carries itself. Almost never needs tags, adverbs or adjectives to describe what the dialogue itself is relaying.


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