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He said, she said
Atthys Gage
Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2011 6:21 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Greetings.   I'm sure we've all heard this ons:  Always use 'said' as a dialogue tag.   It is an invisible word.  

In general, I agree.  Said (or 'asked' for questions -- I know some writers have character say their questions.  Personally i find that a little odd)  is nearly always the best choice, and is probably never a bad choice.  When I'm revising my own stuff and I find an attribution using some thing other than 'said', there's a pretty good chance I'll change it to 'said'. 

Why?  Because it's simple.  It doesn't detract from the all- important flow.  It's as innocuous as a comma.  An invisible, inoffensive word.  It's hard to argue with that.  The first job of any sentence in narrative prose is to make you read the sentence that follows it, so don't gum up the works with anything that might impede that flow.  

Good advice.  But I'm going to play Devil's advocate here for a moment.  I think there are occasions where words other than 'said' can not only add to the flavor of the narrative, but can even improve the flow.  

We've all seen bad examples:  "Balderdash!" he pontificated.    "Please!"  she pleaded.   "Alas!" he sighed.  

But there are times when your character does pontificate, does plead, does stammer or sigh.  Sometimes, a tag can be a very efficient way of making sure we know that.  The best way?  Not always.  Probably not even often, but in a situation where the dialogue could be taken in a number of different ways, it may not be a bad choice to let us know whether it was said in a pleading or a defiant tone.  And yes, you can have the character's eyes flash or their shoulders droop or whatever, but sometimes that can be just as distracting and just as artificial.  

At any rate, I consider it a sign of our times that such a premium is put on driving the story forward, and making sure not to give the reader anything they could possibly linger over, but editors can sure get upset about things that might distract a reader from the Niagra-like flow of the plot, even for an instant.  And it is a modern view. Page through Hawthorne or Poe or Melville -- you'll find all variety of attribution:  all kinds of crying out and surmising and supposing and exclaiming and more ejaculating than a porn film.  Yeah, sometime it reads as a little hysterical to the modern eye, but nobody's going to tell me Melville needs my blue pencil.  

Anyway, any thoughts?

Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2011 7:58 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

Yes. It's a contemporary thing and I sometimes wish I could write like Edith Wharton and get away with it, but neither was Edith Wharton allowed to write like Shakespeare.

We're stuck here in the future where people want to read fast.

Those of us who still enjoy reading slow always have gutenberg.org.

As for "said" I've found myself scrubbing even that simple tag from much of my dialogue in revisions. Grab a barrel and hope for the best. Niagra here we come!
J Boone Dryden
Posted: Monday, September 19, 2011 4:58 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42

Atthys: The examples you give (Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville) were writing in a time when the author was heavy-handed in their narration. Poe, like Dickens, was very authoritative in his narration of story, because it was part of the standard at the time for the author to utilize the narrator to pontificate.

I don't know that contemporary readers or writers have the same mentality as those authors. Outside of a desire for narrative to flow very cinematicly (as Lily pointed out), most modern readers simply lack the diction to be able to imply, infer, or deduce the alternatives to "said" or "asked."

I think that simplifying will improve your readership, but it will reduce your reading level. It's a trade-off really.
Posted: Monday, September 19, 2011 4:46 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

hmmm... It depends on what you mean by "reading level." There are different literacies out there and I don't know that I'd put them on levels. I personally like a nineteenth century language style and I read it well, but that doesn't mean the way things are written today is a "lower" level, it's just different. If you went back in time and handed a contemporary book of ours to Melville, he might be just as lost as the Kids These Days when they try to read Moby Dick. But he could probably learn to read it just like we can learn t read him--or Shakespeare or whatever.

When I was teaching high school, I used to do a "vocabulary trade" with my students. I'd give them three "SAT words" to define and use in context, and I'd make them give me three words from their own vocabulary that were either not in the dictionary or not defined there in the way the students used them. The kids had lots of great literacy to share with me in return for what I was sharing with them.

Likewise, grammar. I would give kids a way to say something in "Standard English" and ask them for examples from their own lives of other ways to say the same thing. We focused on learning to "code-switch," that is, to discern which type of language and vocabulary is appropriate or most effective under what circumstances (Standard English at a job interview, colloquial English of your family at home, slang among your friends, etc.) rather than "higher" or "lower."

Knowledge of Standard English can often be a privilege in our culture. I am lucky that it is my "first language" in the sense that my parents spoke it to me and I didn't have to learn it. But that doesn't mean other language forms aren't as nuanced and complex. They just aren't as favored by the Powers That Be in our society.
Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Monday, September 19, 2011 8:20 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56

I mostly use "said", but there are times when something else is called for. I'm against any "rule" that keeps things out of your toolbox.
Posted: Monday, September 19, 2011 10:25 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

Open up any novel, and look for the world. They're there. Said isn't a bad word. Especially when you have five or six people talking at once. I don't -notice- when published authors used the word said.

I DO notice when the characters only use said and not do actions as well. I DO notice when the writer tries to use some fancy word because they don't want to use the word said... yea. Give me said any day of the week. It does a job, and it does it well -- especially in large groups.

The main thing I feel is necessary is clarity -- if said prevents confusion, use said. If it isn't needed for clarity, drop it altogether. Just my two cents.
Posted: Monday, September 19, 2011 11:59 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

What RJ...er...said.
Atthys Gage
Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 12:26 AM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

"As elucidated by RJ," he stammered fluently.
Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 1:11 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I must admit, I've never heard anyone stammer fluently. You maybe could win some kind of award for that. (Why can't I give two thumbs up? I have two thumbs!)
Atthys Gage
Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 6:30 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Kylie. I know what you mean. I especially notice them when I'm writing them. Sometimes, you just have no choice. If five people are talking, and you don't want to bog the scene down with a lot of bits of side-action to identify who's speaking, you just have to say 'said' a lot. The good thing is, editors generally approve of this.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 11:40 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping this up for newer members to see.

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Friday, August 3, 2012 4:54 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I notice when people use a word other than "said" (or "asked").  And I don't like it.  There are three reasons:

(1) It's often redundant.  If someone says: "Get out of here!" we can tell by context that the person is likely shouting or has a raised voice.  Likewise, if someone is pontificating, we can tell from his/her words -- or we should be able to.  (It also becomes patently clear when an author doesn't quite have a grasp of a word's meaning, if an inappropriate dialogue tag is used.)

(2) It can lead to descriptions of physical impossibilities.  I saw an example page from a romance novel today where someone "blushed" a sentence ("vividly," I might add).  Or a person could "grimace" words, etc.

(3) You quickly learn what an author's favorite verbs are, and count them rather than paying attention to the story.  While I haven't read any of the 50 Shades books, I understand there is a lot of "murmuring" going on.  Apparently none of the characters are able to enunciate.

Ben Nemec
Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 1:34 PM
Joined: 1/21/2013
Posts: 47

I find this topic interesting, and it's probably something I will have to revisit in my own writing at some point.  Here's why:

I hate repetition in books.  That includes dialog tags like said or asked.  When I read the "rule" that you should always use those for dialog, my first reaction was, well, probably not appropriate for polite company.  I always thought it was lazy when an author did that, and certainly not something to be emulated.

That said (heh), I'm pretty sure I abuse dialog tags too much.  There isn't a lot of dialog in what I've posted here so far, but I've noticed it in some of my work that hasn't been uploaded yet.  I'll be interested to see the reaction to the more dialog-heavy parts.

I do try to omit dialog tags entirely when I think it won't confuse the reader, but one of my pet peeves is authors who will write entire conversations without any dialog tags.  If I have to go back and count lines to figure out who's speaking that's a serious problem (and not a hypothetical one either).  I'd much rather err on the other side and overuse them.

I suppose, like anything, it's about balance.  Too much is not good, too little is not good.  The trick is finding that happy middle ground.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 7:47 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

The best non-"said" tags are those that are simple, but carry important meta-language or other information that is not obvious from the dialogue itself.


"Get out of here!"

"Get out of here!" he hissed.

"Get out of here," she laughed.

The first, shouted, doesn't need a tag. It should be obvious from the context that it's a shout. But the second, if uttered in a situation where either secrecy or alarm might be equally plausible, conveys important information about volume. And the third contains emotional tone that differentiates joviality from surprise or insult.

Tags can also create tonal effects that can't be achieved with "said" or with tag-less dialogue.

Humorous juxtaposition:

"I swear I'm telling the truth," he lied.

Ghastly injury and mental shock:

"Blood ... so ... much blood," he gurgled. "Whose is it ..."
"Don't worry," she breathed to herself. "It's done, it's done, you're almost free of him."

And so on. Without proper setup, any of those examples might go seriously wrong -- the last one especially. It could be done with a thought instead -- Don't worry, it's done, it's done, you're almost free of him -- but actual verbalization tells us something different about the character's mental state than silent thought does, even if the words are identical.
Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:46 AM
Joined: 2/21/2013
Posts: 40

Always use said? No, no, no! My approach is quite the opposite: where it is clear who's speaking, don't use anything. And when it isn't, use another device to  make it clear. "Said," to me, sticks out dreadfully very often and makes dialogue clunky. And as for "he pontificated" and the like, such things are to be used very sparingly because their effect all to often is to treat the reader like an idiot. When I review a book on this site and other and an author starts doing that, I  get fed up very quickly, even when the idea behind the book is compelling.
Posted: Saturday, November 23, 2013 3:49 PM
Nelson Algren, author of "Man with the Golden Arm", once wrote a book without ever using "he said" or "she said". He pulled it off nicely. When you get right down to it, talent wills out.

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