Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for He Said/She Said - A to Z Challenge


            “What the heck is a dialogue tag?” she inquired.
            “It’s the way a writer tells you who’s speaking,” he instructed.
            “You mean something like ‘he thundered, or ‘she asserted,’ or ‘he bellowed?’” she offered.
            “Exactly,” he praised. “You can also use ‘he said’ and ‘she said.’”
            “But that’s boring,” she muttered.


A lot of writers feel this way. “He said” and “she said” are boring. Wouldn’t it be better to jazz up your dialogue tags by making them more dynamic and descriptive? Not necessarily.

Don’t get me wrong – descriptive tags have their place, but can easily be overused. Take the example above. Didn’t all of that instructing and offering and muttering distract you from the conversation?

Remember, the point of a dialogue tag is to identify the speaker. For the most part, “he said” and “she said” is perfect for that. They fade into the background instead of jarring the reader with thundering, asserting, or bellowing.

            She picked up a pen and paper to take a few notes. “Do you always need to use a dialogue tag?”
            “No,” he said. “Sometimes a character has a distinctive voice and it’s obvious who is speaking.”
            “That makes sense,” she said.
            “Other times, two characters might be chatting back and forth. The reader can assume they take turns speaking, so you can sometimes omit the tag there too.”
            “But won’t the reader lose track of who’s speaking if you don’t use dialogue tags as a reminder of who’s speaking?”
            He nodded. “That’s why you can’t have an entire conversation between two people without them.”

The characters above discuss how you can sometimes omit a dialogue tag. You may have also noticed I substituted a tag in the first and last lines with a description of a character’s action instead.

Two final things to avoid: Stating the obvious and adverbial tags.

            “Go to hell!” she shouted.

Isn’t obvious that she’s shouting? The content of the dialogue and exclamation point make that clear. This is a good place to use a description of her expression or actions instead.

            “Don’t wake the baby,” she said quietly.

Wouldn’t it be better to use “whispered?” If you’re not going with the simple “she said,” try a more specific verb instead of a using “said” plus an adverb.

Here's what I try to remember when it comes to dialogue tags: When in doubt, keep it simple with “he said” and “she said.” Mix up simple tags with descriptions, an occasional dropped/inferred tag, and the rare dynamic tag.

What dialogue tag hints and rules do you use?

28 comments:

  1. I think it stems from school. I remember being told not to use 'said' in English composition. Now I do it all the time, for the exact reasons you mentioned. And I remember being told not to use 'And', 'But', and 'Because' at the beginning of a sentence, and I do that too. I can't help it, I'm a rebel!

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    1. Exactly! I also break the grammar rules by beginning a sentence with 'And' and 'But.' Especially when a character is speaking, all the rules go out the window in favor of the character's voice.

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  2. I agree with Annalisa about 'said' and as an EFL teacher, I try to encourage my students to use as many adjectives as possible. But having read this post, and also going back over the draft of my book, I can now see how forced and unnecessary it can sound.
    Look forward to reading more and Happy A-Zing
    Bex
    www.leavingcairo.blogspot.com

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    1. Sometimes adjectives - and the non-"he said" tags- are perfectly fine. I think it has a lot to do with balance.

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  3. Well said, Jennifer.

    I agree with Annalisa too. I remember teachers instructing us to be "creative" in our writing. Here's the thing: they weren't teaching us how to write books. Now we have to re-learn how to write for readers.

    I'm definitely a convert to the "he said, she said" tags. Although, from time-to-time, I do like to use "snorted." It just makes me smile. :D

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    1. I totally agree! English class wasn't really geared toward writing books. At least most of the rules stand, but there are those few we have to re-learn a little differently than we were originally taught.

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  4. I go for variety every time. My main WiP has multiple characters, and often more than two in the same scene, so I have to use tags often.

    If I don't things can get very confusing.

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    1. You're right. It gets a lot more complicated when there are more than 2 characters in a scene.

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  5. Thanks- food for thought!
    Visiting from A to Z challenge,
    #893
    Leigh @oneandoneequalstwinfun.com

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Leigh. Good luck on A-Z!

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  6. Gah, adverbs are my achilles heel. I try and try not to use them, but I can't stop. sigh.

    My A-Z

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    1. We all have those patterns that maybe aren't so good for what we're writing... Knowing your strengths and weaknesses can only help your writing! I love to over use "that" and "just!"

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  7. Thanks Jennifer, over the years I hope I've improved in my use of these, and I enjoyed the way you wrote the post as dialog too.

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  8. Thanks for sharing. I can never hear this enough.

    Von L
    The Growing Writer

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    1. I keep a list of my frequent writing mistakes that I use when I edit - tags are on there!

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  9. Hi there, that's an interesting point. I've always tried to jazz them up more often. Perhaps I'll leave a few 'He saids' and 'She saids' in my writing!

    This is me, Duncan D. Horne, visiting you from the A-Z challenge, wishing you all the best throughout April and beyond.

    Duncan In Kuantan

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    1. Thanks for dropping in, Duncan. Good luck with A-Z!

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  10. Great post, Jennifer, and perfectly exemplified!

    I don't know how it comes that "he said", "she said" have such a bad reputation, but replacing them with pompous expressions to sound smarter really does distract from the dialogue content a lot, and without good dialogue, a novel is just a dissertation. ;)

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    1. I love the way you put that - a dissertation! LOL! But true...

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  11. I don't mind "he said," or "she said," but I just don't like it on every line. I think with all writing we need to avoid repetition. Great post.

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    1. I absolutely agree. Repetition is boring!

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  12. Hi...I'm hopping over from the A to Z challenge. Lovely blog...good luck with the challenge!

    Donna L Martin
    www.donasdays.blogspot.com

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  13. great post on dialogue tags. I like using the usual he said she said, but I also like adding action tags at the end.
    Happy A-Zing!
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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    1. I do that too! Apparently I tend to add the action tags too often though - so sayeth the editor! ;)
      I really do try for balance, but I don't always manage it.

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  14. I try to do it about the same way as you. I'm trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs this month.

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    1. That's very impressive! I'm amazed at the number of A-Zers. It's fantastic!

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