Using “He said.” in your dialogue?

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From Dave Farland:

I don’t often give actual tips on how to compose stories. I tend to focus my lessons on storytelling to things that you can’t learn elsewhere.  Yet from time to time, it might be worthwhile to actually give a few technical tips. Today we will go over one on how to improve your dialogue. 

A few years ago, I listened to a bestselling writer give perhaps the worst advice on dialog tags that I’ve ever heard.  He told new writers, “Never use the word said.  It’s boring and repetitious.  Worst of all, it doesn’t really tell us much about the feeling behind what has been spoken.”

His advice was that you should “mix it up, and never repeat verbs that deal with speaking on the same page.  If you are forced to use the word said, he suggested that you add an adverb to it in order to define the quality of the words spoken.  

Given his advice, you might have a teen “mumble” one sentence:

“I don’t want to go to church,” she mumbled.

While the reply would use a different verb:

“Well you’re going to go, Missy,” Dad retorted.

The problem that arises is that we find ourselves using a lot of verbs that seem rather silly when put into a string of tags.  Thus, you might have people mumbling, shouting, profaning, teasing, snarling, squealing, averring, blaming, and so on in rapid succession.   

Do you see the problem?  When you handle dialog that way, you fall into a trap where your characters seem to be emotional butterflies, endlessly flitting from one powerful emotion to another.  Sometimes authors even fall into the trap of using unfortunate combinations:

“Why don’t you come over to my place?” she teased.

“Sure!” he ejaculated.

In reality, people don’t flit from one powerful emotion to another.  Each person that you meet has something of an emotional tone about them.  Some people are stern most of the time, while others might be thoughtful, pleasant, or excited.  So when you write about that person, you’ll most often be depicting that person with his or her natural tone. The link is to a lesson on common mistakes writers make in regards to tone. 

Many a literary writer would suggest that we use the words said or asked when we make our attributions.  Both of these words are neutral in tone.  This allows the writer to imply the tone through the content of the dialog.  If I write:

“Get your butt out of my chair,” he said. 

I don’t need to modify it with a verb like roared, shouted, fumed, and so on.  Nor do I really need to add an exclamation mark.  The tone of the speaker in this case is implied by the content of the sentence.

Another advantage of plain old said is that it’s invisible in your writing.  You can repeat the verb in every line of dialog in a short story, and no reader will ever complain.  (In the same way, character names don’t attract too much attention.  If you’re writing about the Wizard Wythian, you can repeat his name a dozen times on a page without the reader feeling that it is overused.)

But there are a couple of problems when using said.  Often a writer might modify the word for greater effect when a different verb would be more suitable.  For example, you might say “she said very softly,” when “she whispered” actually conveys the same information more concisely.

For this reason, many literary writers will tell you to “get rid of adverbs,” the words that end in –ly, and as a result they will search through a document during their editing process trying to get rid of as many –ly words as possible.

However, getting rid of all of your adverbs can lead to new problems.  If you’ve read a lot of authors from the past 70 years, you’ll find that their style is becoming increasingly homogeneous as they allow their writing to be informed by such strictures.  In short, too many a writer now writes in an abbreviated Hemingway-esque style that feels smooth and professional but which also sounds like the same voice as any of ten thousand other writers.  You can learn to write in that homogeneous tone by following a popular handbook, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  For this reason, I’ve heard authors complain that Strunk and White have stolen the voices from an entire generation of America’s young writers.  We sound like clones.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

PG notes in passing that, for him, using the term, “ejaculated,” in place of “said” has presented a mental speed-bump for some time. He has less of a problem if it is used in a period piece, but on occasions when female characters ejaculate, he finds the term to be a bit more off-putting.

But PG is ancient, quirky, opinionated and suffering from the severe effects of being socially isolated from many of his stabilizing and sanity-enhancing human resources other than Mrs. PG for an extended period of time, so his thoughts on this subject should likely be disregarded.

12 thoughts on “Using “He said.” in your dialogue?”

  1. Generally good, I said agreeably.

    However — “For example, you might say “she said very softly,” when “she whispered” actually conveys the same information more concisely.”

    … “said softly” and “whispered” do not sound the same to my ear, I objected quietly.

  2. Just make sure that any ambiguity is intentional and in service of the characters and plot. Sometimes the speech alone, and its context, will leave the reader wondering. Sometimes, too, that can be intentional, either because it’s intentionally ambiguous or the writer wants the reader to infer from context:

    “Not now,” she said.
    “Not now,” she teased.

    leave two entirely different impressions on the reader. If the reader cannot reasonably draw the same conclusion from “said” as from “teased,” then we’re dealing with whether the ambiguity is intentional.

    The same goes for adverbs, which are especially helpful when used to jar one away from ordinary inferences and expectations:

    “I’m really not sure,” he said slowly.

    means something completely different if the context is a casual conversation over dinner than if “he” is the captain of the starship Titanic II and the computer has just warned that one needs to maneuver in the next ten seconds to avoid diving into a black hole.

    In short, “universal advice” on “superior writing” is almost certainly bad advice, he said pedantically. (Or should that be “he proclaimed”?) And the easier a “rule” is to follow mechanically, the more sensitive a good writer must be to exceptions — even in boring things like legal briefs.

    So I started a sentence with a conjunction, split an infinitive, and failed to follow SVO word order. So sue me.

  3. I agree with Dave Farland, 100%. “He said” is the best tag. It’s invisible. Or you might omit a tag at all in a rapid dialog. But putting emotional qualifiers to “said” also feels wrong. If you want to convey emotions, you might skip the tag but add an action bit to the dialog line.
    “Don’t sit in my chair.” He slammed his fist into the chair back, and it skittered along the wooden floor. “Never sit in my chair!”

  4. He ululated menacingly

    That was my favorite example about dialogue tags in a Writer’s Digest book about writing horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Having watched “Xena,” and “Zulu,” I don’t think it’s possible for one to talk and ululate at the same time, though. So it’s silly twice over to use it as a dialogue tag 🙂 I think “ejaculated” also came in for a mention in that chapter. “Don’t go so over the top you take the reader out of the story” is a good rule for dialogue tags.

    But I like Olga’s action tags, they’re a nice way to show vs. tell.

    Farland says “Get your butt out of my chair,” doesn’t require modification, but to me, that depends on how you’ve written the character. Some people say rude things in a cheerful or neutral tone of voice. I’m reminded of the time a senior editor breezily told the number two guy at the paper to f–k off when he asked about a story’s progress. Her tone when she said it just made him laugh. She later apologized, on the grounds that she shouldn’t talk to her boss that way.

    Other characters are more tightly wound, and would say the same line with an edge of menace. Someone else might actually shout that line. Or whine. “Said” can require some heavy lifting, in that you have to have shown enough of a character that we could peg their speaking voice. This is where italics can be useful, or other tricks. “Said” just doesn’t do justice to the following: “Get your butt out of my chaiiirrrrr.”

    I also agree that “softly” and “whispered” are not interchangeable. To me those are volume levels. Whispers are not intended to be heard by third parties; a whisper is the lowest speaking volume. “Softly” just means speaking at a discreet volume, so as not to disturb others. You may not care if you’re overheard.

  5. Dialogue attributions should be exceedingly rare – not constant jokes.

    It is possible to eliminate many of them, reserving those needed to keep things from getting either too elaborate or confusing.

    ‘Saids’ used to be almost invisible. But try narrating, and you find yourself constantly having to lower your voice so they don’t stick out.

    • Agreed.

      After a long day being grilled by the coppers about the body they found under the boardwalk, the last thing Seamus wanted to see on walking back into his dingy office was that damned leprechaun sitting behind his own desk.

      “Get out of my chair.”

      “Och, Seamus, my companion of auld, why such an uncivil greeting?”

      That (so I believe) does the job for the reader – without attributions, or anything else. (Not from any story I’m working on, just an off-the-cuff bit of dialogue.)

  6. The action tags also keep scenes from being ‘talking heads’ by reminding us of what is around. I recall analyzing once, the difference between book one, chapter one in a series and book ##, chapter 1 much further on, wondering just what had made the quality drop. A lot of it was lack of scene setting, no action tags, no mention of furniture, space… No texture. I like ‘said’ it is invisible.

  7. All these micro adjustments remind me of computer programming. There are lots of coding practices that make the program easier to write, understand, and run. It’s wonderful to figure out how they work or learn them.

    But, applying the same techniques to people? Rules for using words? Eliminate words when possible? What is the standard for success? Approval from a bunch or authors?

    • Well, some say the measure of success can be found with “1000 True Fans”.

      “To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

      A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune. ”

      More at the source.
      (And no, appeasing the literati isn’t on the roadmap.)

  8. In regards to not using adverbs. Since being repeatedly told at conferences and in blogs to avoid adverbs at all costs, I find it very interesting that so many books on recent bestseller lists do indeed contain plenty of the forbidden adverbs.

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