The Writer’s Desk: ‘Let’s talk,’ he ascertained, and other dialogue tag problems

Imagine you see a short story, or an entire novel that begins with:

“Shut up!” he proclaimed.

“NO!” she intoned.

“Why not?” he shouted in a fierce tone.


“Because why?”

“Because I don’t want to,” she said, sneeringly.

The above passage has several problems. First, it’s dull. This is the kind of conversation you are likely to hear between two kids in the back seat of a car. If you have a brief scene which includes sibling rivalry this might work, but an entire story or novel with this kind of dialogue will make the reader toss your book over a freeway overpass.

The next issue is the dialogue tags. Proclaimed is used in the wrong context here. When one says, “shut up,” it’s already implied by the words shut up the speaker is angry. (The exception would be the slang use of Shut up!” in which case your speaker might slap hands or bump fists with his/her fellow character.) “Shut up!” with an exclamation point, or just “Shut up,” will suffice. (Be careful not to overuse exclamation points unless you wish to sound like an adolescent writing a diary entry.)

Intoned is also not necessary. A response to “Shut up,” is likely to engender use a snarky retort. Trust your readers to decide that for themselves how the speakers sound.

He shouted in a fierce tone is also not needed because shouting indicates high emotion.

Finally, the adjective sneeringly is just awful. It creates an ugly sound and doesn’t roll off the lips as well as she said with a sneer.

So how do we put tags on dialogue?

Dialogue tags are verbs associated with sound. Giggled, clicked, chittered, barked, trilled and yelled are acceptable tags depending on the context, but overusing too many stand-out verbs will make for a noisy manuscript. When in doubt, use the verb ‘to say.’ Said is one of those invisible words like a, and, or the, so a verb other than said is only necessary if the accompanying action needs a vivid verb. And not every line of dialogue needs a tag.

Beginning a tale with dialogue is risky. Quickly give the reader a sense of people and place to provide context.

Here is one way to solve the scene at the beginning of this article:

“Shut up!”

“No,” Ashley said, smacking her brother.

“Ow!” he rubbed his arm. “Why not?”


“Because why?”

“Because I don’t want to,” Ashley replied with a whine.

Dana glanced toward the back seat, and said, “If you kids don’t knock it off, I’m going to duct tape your mouths closed.”

They rode the rest of the way to the mall with the sound of Tommy sniffling.

Dialogue is not the same as everyday conversation. Most of what we utter throughout the day is uninteresting. We tend to make small talk with one another about the weather and the price of gas. There must be a reason for it. Dialogue should 1) Provide information, 2) reveal emotion, and 3) move the story ahead. Good dialogue helps move a scene forward so the reader will keep turning the pages.

Another benefit of dialogue is it provides white space on a page. Personally, I love a good, meaty paragraph with long, narrative descriptions and Faulkner-like sentences, yet most contemporary readers prefer tighter writing.

Here’s an exercise to improve your dialogue: Pay attention to how characters interact in films and TV. Screenwriters don’t have the benefit of narrative and must rely on their dialogue and action to tell the story. For great dialogue check out The West Wing, The Big Bang Theory, and Better Call Saul.

— By Laura Moe

Laura Moe is a former high school and university teacher and is the author of three novels, Breakfast With Neruda, Blue Valentines, and The Language of the Son. She serves as board president of EPIC Group Writers and is currently adapting her first novel into a streaming series.

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