Home : Writing is Design – Writing Dialogue: He Said. She Said.

dialogDialogue presents challenges for writers. Some prefer to simply declare what was “said.” Many authors feel that “said” is both traditional and invisible:

“I’m going to write some dialogue,” said Bill.
“I look forward to reading it, ”said Helene.

But this style is not invisible. Some narrator is telling us what happened—as if the characters spoke in some other time and place and we’re hearing a play-by-play of their conversation after the fact.“Said,” is past tense. Others object to the mindless repetition of “said, said, said.”

This latter objection is all-too-often countered by inserting an exhaustive list of words that fill in for the functional-but-dry “said”:

“Let's try some sample dialog,” suggested Bill.
“I'll give it a shot,” muttered Helene.
“What shall we talk about?”asked Bill.
“Doesn’t matter; this is just an example,” responded Helene.
“You really should take this seriously,” Bill admonished.
“Well, think of a topic, then,” Helene snorted. “How can we have a serious chat about nothing?”

As the writer runs out of synonyms, the narrative begins to take on unusual and unexpected colors that distract the reader from what’s being said. And if the dialogue is longer than a few pages, even writers with huge vocabularies will run out of synonyms and be forced to start recycling awkwardly. Mostly, the dialog gives the writing a bland, journalistic overtone.

Some writers avoid dialogue, placing the burden on the narrator to relate the story to the reader:

Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

When characters are talking, ensure that the reader always knows who is speaking. At the same time, keep the narrator “off-camera” as much as possible so the reader feels in the room, listening to and watching the conversation.

Writers can take useful clues from film directors. If Bill is speaking to Helene, the camera might look at Helene over Bill’s shoulder. What facial expressions and gestures do the characters make that reveal their thoughts and feelings? Potent dialogue contains so much more than exchanged words. What’s unspoken is often the most powerful part of the conversation.

Bill took a long, deep breath. “I’m here to help. Rather than get upset, let’s rewind, pick a topic, and move forward together.”
Helene looked down. “You’re right. I’m sorry I jumped on you.”
“Water under the bridge, Helene. I’m over it.” He put his hand on her shoulder, lightly. “Tell me what you’re interested in—or what you ate for breakfast. I’m sure we can find a topic.”
Helene’s eyes brightened. “You know that little restaurant on the corner of 5th and Main? The one with the funny blue awnings where they always forget to turn the ‘we’re closed’ sign around?”
Bill smiled at Helene’s observations. He liked the way she picked out unusual details that anyone else would miss.
“They make this French toast with rum in the batter that you wouldn’t believe. The bread has nuts in it and they have real maple syrup and …”
Bill noticed the syrup stain on the ruffles of Helen’s white blouse and suppressed a chuckle. Nuts and rum; that explains everything.

This dialogue is cinematographic. The narrator doesn’t need to tell us what the characters are saying; they’re capable of doing that on their own; that’s what the quotation marks are for. The narrator’s job is to fill in details that won’t come through in pure dialogue: pauses, breathing, eye and hand motions, body language, facial expressions, clothing. It’s not enough to hear the dialogue. If we can visualize it, we’re there with the speakers. The narrator is still with us—much like a stagehand is there with a bright spotlight—but we focus on where the light is pointed rather than on its source. The italics at the end offer Bill’s unshared thoughts. He doesn’t want to offend Helene by stating his conclusions out loud, but we’re privy to them all the same.

In the following dialogue from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the material that’s outside the quotation marks is just as powerful as the verbal exchange.

The owner drummed his knee with his fingers. "Deputy sheriff comes on by in the night. Might make it tough for ya. Got a law against sleepin' out in this State. Got a law about vagrants."
"If I pay you a half a dollar I ain't a vagrant, huh?"
"That's right."
Tom's eyes glowed angrily. "Deputy sheriff ain't your brother-'n-law by any chance?"
The owner leaned forward. "No, he ain't. An' the time ain't come yet when us local folks got to take no talk from you goddamn bums, neither."
"It don't trouble you none to take our four bits. An' when'd we get to be bums? We ain't asked ya for nothin'. All of us bums, huh? Well, we ain't askin' no nickels from you for the chance to lay down an' rest."
The men on the porch were rigid, motionless, quiet. Expression was gone from their faces; and their eyes, in the shadows under their hats, moved secretly up to the face of the proprietor.
Pa growled, "Come off it, Tom."

Writing is design. Good dialogue contains more than an exchange of words. Effective prose transports the reader into the scene—something that’s nearly impossible unless you describe the scene and what the characters are experiencing. Having a character say what he’s thinking is easy. Having him show you what he’s thinking, sometimes without saying a word, is a hallmark of good writing.


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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