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Writing is Design – Writing Dialogue: He Said. She Said. — 12 Comments

  1. As I discovered when reading my novel aloud to my wife as a form of editing, the word said is anything but invisible. It became a nauseating experience after two chapters. She wasn’t enjoying the story and by then, neither was I. So, to bring the word “said” to a manageable and acceptable level – I did a rewrite. I removed over 60% (800 repetitions) of “said” from the novel. Action tags allowed me to let the reader know who was speaking and it served two purposes: 1) made the story much stronger, and 2) increased my word count without fluffing. My first experience with “said” as a very repetitive word was at a writers’ meeting and the guest speaker read aloud from her favorite author. It was the first time she’d ever shared that section and I think “said” was repeated about thirty times. It hurt. Even she was cringing by the end of her reading. In today’s market, the trend for audio books makes authors examine their work more closely. Simple errors become glaring mistakes. I share writing tips at my website and this was one of my topics a couple of weeks ago. Great article.

  2. My name is Lumumba Mthembu. I am an aspirant writer from Soweto in South Africa. I agree fully with Veronica Knox: “This is one of the rare posts I’ve read worth print­ing out to con­sult from time to time.”

    Thanks Dave

    • Thanks for you comments. One of the things I enjoy most about the Internet is engaging with interesting people from around the world. Here in the U.S., many of us have common, boring names from the Bible: David, John, Mary, Paul, etc. I was just on a skype chat with Hanumant and Upendra in India when I saw I had a comment on my blog from Lumumba Mthembu. You have a beautiful, musical name. It sounds like it could be played on a marimba. Love it!

      • When I was a kid growing up in northern Wisconsin, I wished my boring Bible middle name David was my first name. Now I’m sorta glad my less boring Bible name Joel is my first name.

        Though I’m still puzzling over the fact that I’m the family Celtophile, yet my three siblings have two Celtic names each.

  3. I do the exact same thing. I learned it from Martin, and I’m sure I’ve seen other writers do it too. I call it “using action to tag dialogue”. I think it’s an efficient way to squeeze in a little more character. It feels natural enough because so much of face to face communication is nonverbal.

    In addition, I use another trick. I’m not sure I truly originated this, it’s more likely I simply amplified something I saw another author do. The narrative is third person limited, but the POV character changes with each scene. That’s common, but my twist on it is that the narrator gets personal. “He” is so thoroughly in that character’s corner that his very descriptions are colored by his or her perceptions and preconceptions. The characters are so strong that they warp the very narrative itself.

    I think this is more interesting and effective than a flat invisible narrator with thoughts in italics, something that annoys me anyway.

    Others have told me that they struggle with dialogue, but for me it’s the easiest part of writing. I know my characters so well that I know pretty much what they’ll say in any situation. Each has a unique style of dialogue, so much so that readers can probably look at a quote out of context and tell who said it simply by what was said and how.

  4. Thanks Dave.

    It’s always a good writing day when someone, such as yourself in this post, simplifies by example and clears the cobwebs from a subject we writers assume we know. But in the deep recesses of the writing learning curve, it’s possible to know a rule and also miss its practical application.

    This is one of the rare posts I’ve read worth printing out to consult from time to time.

  5. What a surprise to have you describe exactly the method I’ve developed in my own fiction. It has become such a habit I hardly think about it anymore.

    It’s what I prefer to read as well. Let me watch, quietly, and keep the narrator off stage as you say.

  6. Writing fashion changes. At one time it was common to use he said/she said, and how, such as, he said angrily. Now the use of ‘ly’ words is frowned upon, if the reader doesn’t know the person is angry, or whatever, you haven’t written it well enough.
    But why the need for he said/she said. If you need to define who’s speaking, such as dialogue involving a group, then use names, i.e. John said, Sally said.
    But this is one of those arguments where there’s no right way, only a lot of wrongs ways, and that statement can be applied to virtually every aspect of writing, such as whether to put a comma before and.

    • I don’t think it’s so much about proper names vs. pronouns, or whether or not to use -ly adverbs. The “— said” style puts the dialogue firmly in the past, and because it’s being related by a narrator, the presentation is indirect—like having someone read you a report on the phone. Dialogue is much more than the words that are exchanged in a conversation. Once you include body language and other actions within the scene, these provide all the framework you need to convey who’s speaking. If a character does something, the comments he makes will be attached to his actions by reference, thus eliminating the need to tell the reader who “said” it.

  7. Great observations again Dave. I used to really struggle with dialogue and would sometimes avoid it as long as possible, but certainly the permutations of what was being ‘said’ were a factor for those inhibitions. Also there’s an element of insult to the reader in constantly stating who’s saying whatm so even if ‘said’ starts to become invisiblem the constant iterations get to be annoying, even when it runs over several pages.

    I’d always be happy with describing the inner emotional and physical reactions of my characters to action or conversation in the narrative, but it wasn’t until I joined an online Tolkien fan forum that was heavily into pen and paper roleplay that I finally got into the habit of threading concise ‘motivational’ narrative in between the talking bits. It was really a natural progression once I ‘got’ that the character I was writing was a lot more fun for other people to engage with (there were strict rules as to only controlling your own character and not making other people’s moves for them when you interacted) if they gave some clues on what they were thinking or feeling and that it was rather like a live action screenplay but with the actors writing their own character’s lines instead of a single playwright. The more information you gave about your own tone of voice, or whether you were smiling or frowning etc, meant you got a better reaction and come back from the other players’ writing.

    Almost like real life conversations where people get animated when they’re talking to each other – it’s not all about the verbals… lol

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