Writing Dialogue: He Said, She Said

This is the last post in the theme of getting the words right—at least, for now. I’m going to revisit some of the advice from the previous post about choosing the strongest verb for a particular action, and turn that advice on its head. The writing greats agree there is one time when a single, mundane verb should be used in favour of the countless other options available: when you’re writing dialogue.

Writerly feelings run hot when it comes to the attributions used to tell the reader who is speaking. The prevalent wisdom is counterintuitive. I’m not even sure I agree with it some of the time. But it is widespread among writers and editors. Ignore it at your peril.

According to James Scott Bell, in Revision and Self-Editing:

“Almost always, the simple said should be your default setting. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said isn’t creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it. This is a mistake.”

Said. A plain, ho-hum kind of word. He said, she said, they all said. It flies in the face of everything we learned about specificity and detail, strength and particularity. But it’s not just Bell who eschews other verbs in favour of the humble said. Browne & King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, echo the advice:

“We’re all in favour of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you’re writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always said. The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don’t work is that verbs other than said tend to draw attention away from the dialogue.”

Still not convinced? Here’s what Sol Stein has to say on the subject, in Stein on Writing:

“Thou shalt not mutter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream, for it is the words and not the characterization of the words that must carry their own decibels.”

Stein gives us a hint at why other speaker attributions are frowned upon. When you choose a different verb to tell the reader who is speaking, you run the risk of also telling the reader how the words are spoken. The dialogue and character actions should be enough.

This is a case of show don’t tell, that ubiquitous piece of advice with so many shades of meaning. If a character shouts or mutters or mumbles, you are propping up weak dialogue by telling the reader how it should be interpreted. And if your dialogue isn’t weak, you make it appear that way when you add unnecessary scaffolding.

As Bell put it, “said is almost invisible to the reader but for its primary use as a tag to tell us who is speaking. It does its work and stays out of the way. It lets the dialogue do the heavy lifting.”

I’m sure you’ve read books where characters moaned or responded or queried or gasped. You may even have enjoyed them. I know I have. And to be honest, I didn’t feel that the use of those attributions distracted me from the dialogue in any way. When this topic came up at a recent meeting of the writers’ group I attend, the consensus was that the occasional groan or whisper does no harm at all. But the thing about editorial fashions is that they are very difficult to argue against.

In How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz notes that many published authors use flashy dialogue tags. He claims they “indicate that the author is an amateur, or that he lacks the sensitivity to appreciate the musical qualities of language. Books full of inept dialogue tags get published all the time. Of course they do. Not all published writers are good writers.”

Do you want to be taken for an insensitive amateur who can’t appreciate the musical qualities of language? I didn’t think so.

Another problem with speaker attribution is the tendency for writers to go wild with those pesky adverbs (he said wisely). Strunk & White, in The Elements of Style, have this to say:

“Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: ‘he consoled,’ ‘she congratulated.’ They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.”

Browne & King are more forgiving when it comes to the motives of writers who use adverbs to beef up their dialogue tags, but their point is similar:

“Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence on the writer’s part, perhaps it’s simple laziness, or perhaps it’s a misguided attempt to break up the monotony of using the unadorned said all the time… but all too many fiction writers tend to pepper their dialogue with –ly’s. Which is a good reason to cut virtually every one you write. Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.”

Which brings us back to show don’t tell. Consider this:

“I can’t stand it,” he said softly.

“I can’t stand it,” he said. She touched his hand and leaned closer to catch the words.

Or:

“I can’t stand it!” he shouted.

“I can’t stand it!” he said. She took a step back and wiped spittle from her face.

In each case, the first line of dialogue tells you how the words were spoken, but the second shows you with character action.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and revise some amateurish, insensitive dialogue in my current manuscript.