Friday, March 18, 2011

The 'He said', 'She said' Conundrum

I don't pretend to know it all. There are many more knowledgeable writers out there than me, but I'll tell you what I do. It seems to be good enough for the time being. By all means, if you know better, feel free to correct me. It is my dearest wish for us all to learn this skill called writing.

He said, she said, they said, we said - rather than clutter up your page with dialog tags, lets give your reader a little credit. I prefer to keep my tags to one set per page, if at all possible. That's easy enough to do if only two people are talking, but it can get a little complicated if there is more than two people participating in the conversation. There are other ways to clue your reader into who is talking.

Since action is key to keeping your story moving forward, action along with dialog goes a long way towards allowing your readers to see what's happening - part of the 'show don't tell' effort.

For instance:

John sighed hugely and ran his fingers through his hair with rather more force than was necessary to accomplish the task. "Eehh, I don't know. Sounds pretty iffy to me."

With this sample, it wasn't necessary to end the dialog with 'said John' or 'he said'. We already know who is talking and we can see that he is going to need some serious convincing to get him to agree with whatever it is he doesn't like.

I confine action with dialog where the two are closely related. For instance, if John was to glance out the door and notice his secretary filing her nails, I'd probably start a new paragraph stating that information, provided I'd include it at all.

One-sided conversations are interesting. They can be handled in two ways. Since two people are still involved, you can still separate each persons actions into different paragraphs, but sometimes if the non-speaking person isn't doing much, his actions can be included into the speaking persons paragraph.

Here is a sample from one of my stories:

--> “I am truly sorry,” he said as he tucked the heavy blanket around Derrick more warmly. “I thought you must have fallen – that cut on your face.... I would have brought you help that first night had I known. But you’ll be all right soon. That potion will do its work in a few hours. You’ll find what you need outside and to the right a few yards away.” Derrick’s eyes were beginning to close. “Are you listening to me?”

I know, in this sample you don't know who 'he' is, but in the previous paragraph we are clearly told who this is so there is no confusion as to who is talking. Further clarification is given in the following paragraph when Derrick finally speaks.

You can also put your tag in the middle of the sentence, something like this:

--> “Well, hello there,” said Derrick, “and who might you be?”

The sentence will make perfect sense if 'said Derrick' and the accompanying punctuation was left out, but, since no one has been talking for a couple pages, I like to introduce who is speaking even if it really isn't necessary.

And of course, if you begin your dialog paragraph with "I am Tranot.", no tag is necessary at all, even if it is the first thing said.

If you'll notice, the only tags I used in my samples is 'said'. The words 'said', 'asked', and sometimes 'whispered', or 'yelled', and maybe a couple others, is all that is necessary. 'Said' and 'asked' get treated like a comma or period by the brain and is mostly tuned out, though it offers us an identity for who is talking. Such tags as 'whispered' or 'yelled' accent action that should already be in motion unless you're looking to startle someone or introduce a new feeling with what was said.

In my work, 'whispered' usually comes up when someone's very ill or injured, or very much afraid and/or hiding - like this:

--> Protracted moments passed before Derrick could get his throat and mouth organized enough to utter words. “No,” he whispered. Nothing more forceful would come out. “‘M thirsty. H-have some water?”


--> He glanced around at what he could see of the interior, and then he looked at the expectant and hopeful faces of the two people standing there. He backed up, shaking his head. “It’s a trap,” he whispered.


--> Only one man was in the house with Pat, the man with the fist Pat had called Sam. Both of them were asleep in the bedroom. Derrick slipped up to the man’s side of the bed and sealed his mouth shut with a hard hand, whispering his hold person spell at the same time, effectively freezing him in place, but Derrick wanted him awake for this, and his hand had done that. He glanced over at Pat; she slept on undisturbed. “You fear me,” Derrick whispered in Sam’s ear. “I am your worst nightmare. You fear to enter those woods. You fear what might be in those mountains. Don’t you?”

And sometimes it's simply necessary to yell:

--> A man and a woman stepped out of the door; both of them looked to see what delayed their visitor. “You leave him alone,” yelled the man at the door. “You get away from here.”

Here, yelling was necessary since the man he was talking to was half a block away.

Here is another example:

--> Derrick zeroed on the fourth man; it was his bloody fist he saw raising for another strike. “Hold on there!” he yelled and the hand froze.

In this example, it was imperative that Derrick become the center of attention the instant he burst in the door. Without it, the fist would have landed another blow.

You should notice that even though my character yelled, I didn't use an exclamation point. Exclamation points are to be used sparingly if at all. They are an indication of surprise, anger or sudden pain and used in conjunction with something rather inarticulate most of the time.

Now, if there were three or more people talking, the dialog tags might need to be a bit more frequent, then again, if action is included like above, they can still be kept to a minimum.

Remember, we are always in motion, even if only a little. There's eye movement, head movement, or hand movement. Also remember all your players in any given scene. Even if one person doesn't participate in the conversation, he or she is still there following along. He or she would still be in motion and motion attracts attention.

There are all manner of dialog tags, but you don't want to use anything that might resemble an action. Below is a list of tags to avoid. I've used a couple, but I find that most of them would fit much better in the 'showing' part of your paragraph.

A) acknowledged, added, admitted, advised, agreed, announced, answered, approved, argued, asserted, assumed, assured, asked

B) babbled, bargained, began, bellowed, boasted, bragged

C) called, claimed, commanded, commented, complained, cried

D) decided, declared, demanded, denied, described, dictated

E) emphasized, estimated, exclaimed, explained, expressed

G) giggled, grinned, grunted

H) howled

I) indicated, insisted, instructed

L) laughed, lectured, lied

M) mentioned, moaned, mumbled, murmured

N) nagged, noted, notified

O) objected, observed, ordered

P) pleaded, pointed out, prayed, predicted

Q) questioned

R) reassured, related, repeated, replied, responded, requested, restated, revealed, roared

W) scolded, screamed, shouted, shrieked, snapped, sneered, sobbed, spoke, sputtered, stammered, stated, stormed, suggested

T) taunted, thought, told

U) urged, uttered

V) vowed

W) wailed, warned, whispered


Roy Durham said...

This is very helpful but could you give a few more examples, and a list of tag that are better to be used. i would like to see more on this topic. Thank you. You have a big help

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Sarah Butland said...

Thank you for the very helpful list of ideas on ways to avoid saying "said" so often. I often struggle with this myself and then when my readers ask me who said what I realize I have so much more to work on.

thanks Anna! Enjoyable read again.

Katja Weinert said...

I agree; these would flow better as part of the prose than the dialogue. I prefer a good old "She said" to a "She giggled".

Rainy said...

Great post! Many new writers seem to overlook this aspect of dialogue writing.

On a side note, your blog was nominated:

Take care,


S.M. Carrière said...

I followed Rainy's lead and nominated you too!