He Said/She Said
Advice Column #2
I am writing my first novel and have a question about dialogue. I am finding conflicting advice about the use of ‘said.’ Some say that’s all you should use, others say change it up with other synonyms of the word said. Which is correct?
Excellent question as this is an ongoing debate on how to write dialogue.
Kurt Vonnegut said it is a writer’s responsibility to, “use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time is wasted.” Vonnegut often wrote of the importance of respecting your reader, giving them someone to root for, and valuing their time and intelligence.
His perspective is important in this debate because the primary argument for sticking with said has to do with respecting the reader and the time they choose to spend with your book.
The reason to use only said is so as not to pull the reader out of the story. When a reader is immersed in a novel, reading said is a lot like reading punctuation. They are able to skim over the word, and still know who is speaking.
Dialogue tags such as exclaimed, shouted, hissed, opined, uttered, barked, stop the flow. They can be jarring to the reader causing them to stop and try to discern exactly what the author is trying to convey. Using dialogue tags other than said can also look amateurish, as if the writer had a thesaurus nearby. The same goes for adding an adverb after said. Here are two different way to write the same dialogue.
“Go away,” she said angrily.
One might think, but how does the reader know she is angry if you don't include the adverb? That’s where ‘beats of action’ come into play.
“Go away.” She crossed her arms tight across her chest. “Get out now or I swear I’ll . . . I’ll call the police.”
This is a classic example of show don’t tell. And we’ve eliminated the adverb completely.
Some writers opt to use words such as laughed, giggled, and sighed as dialogue tags. The problem is, you can’t laugh, sigh, or giggle and speak at the same time. If you’re not convinced, try uttering the word porpoise while sighing. Now try it while laughing.
If you want your character to laugh, here are two options:
“Hah,” she said.
“No way.” She laughed.
But not, “No way,” she laughed.
Note the difference in punctuation.
It’s also important to know that although using said as opposed to other tags is recommended, it isn’t necessary to insert the word into every line of dialogue. There are others ways to write dialogue that will convey who is speaking without tags. This is an excerpt from my upcoming novel in my mystery series.
“But, Glenn, how are we going to find out?”
He nudged his glasses up his nose. “I have no idea.”
Rosalie carried their coffee cups over to the dish bin. “Wait.” She spun around. “Remember what Jojo said last night? About her uncle?”
These sentences inform the reader who is speaking, as well as the characters’ movements, gestures, and emotions, without the use of tags and/or adverbs. And, most importantly, it is a more pleasant experience for the reader—it keeps them in the story while moving the story forward.
Readers want to fall in love with your book. They want it to linger when they have finished and they want a satisfying ending. And we, as writers, want that too. Being mindful of your readers’ experience can guide you to some fabulous, can’t-put-it-down writing.