He Said, She Said

He Said, She Said

You’re sitting in a theater entrenched in the first act of a play when the playwright jumps onto the stage and says, “Do you see what’s happening here? She’s bitter because she had to sacrifice her career for his?”

Well, sure you get it. You’re watching—or trying to watch—the performance. Does this egomaniac think he’s the only one that understands human nature? You don’t require Cliff Notes.

And nor do your readers need to be told how a character delivers a line.

He said works fine. It works better than fine. It’s the one place where repetition creates a desirable understatement. He said, she said, he said, she said… renders said invisible.

Topping Elmore Leonard Ten Tips for Young Writers is, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. ‘Said’ is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.”

Leonard isn’t the only writer or critic to jump on this issue. The New York Times Book Review printed the following critique of Robert Ludlum’s work—

Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: “‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.” The book may sell in the billions, but it’s still junk.

Adverbs modifying the verb ‘said’ are authorial intrusions. As Leon Surmelian explains—

Gestures and other descriptions used for revealing character or explaining the situation bring in the author’s voice and remind the reader he is being told a story. The author’s voice should be heard as little as possible. In a dialogue scene the reader’s attention should be drawn to what the characters are saying, and the words stand out better by themselves. When the speech is charged with emotional associations or significance, when it is loaded, as it should be, stage directions are unnecessary. The reader can supply the intonation himself… The writer should depend on the speech rather than on stage directions in writing his dialogue, and not act like a fussy busybody determined to take the reader by the hand and guide him step-by-step through his scenes, underscoring the meaning of each speech.

The reader’s eye skips over the unadorned he said, she said. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the said verb slides by unnoticed. Used moderately, a few other words like asked, answered, and replied can be invisible as well.

New writers, though, tend to use lines like: “You don’t have the nerve,” he goaded, or “This is the third time I’ve asked you,” she accused, or “Don’t leave,” he demured. This isn’t the place for strong verbs. Maybe the writer is trying to flex her creativity, but tags like these defeat dialogue. They tell rather than show and are redundant when you’ve successfully shown.

  • “I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.
  • “Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.
  • “Shut up!” she snapped.

She snapped, to pick one from the list, is overkill. Readers know she’s unhappy. Saying shut up conveys her emotion. By refraining from writing snapped or growled or testily, readers are free to interpret the line according to how they view the character. The telling appendage (she snapped) slows the pace when the writer wants to carry readers in the current.

If the writing works, readers will know when someone is shouting, crying, admitting, or goading. It will come across in the character’s facial expression, body language, action, or the tenor of his words. If a character nags, let him repeat himself. If he interrupts, let him interrupt.

“You can’t! It’s not—
“Fair?” Celia said. “Who said it had to be fair?”

When writing dialogue tags, throw out the thesaurus. Say no to—

acknowledged, admitted, admonished, agreed, answered, argued, asked, barked, begged, bellowed, blustered, bragged, complained, confessed, cried, demanded, denied, exclaimed, giggled, groaned, growled, hedged, hinted, hissed, howled, interrupted, laughed, lied, moaned, mumbled, muttered, nagged, opined, pleaded, promised, questioned, remembered, replied, requested, roared, sang, screamed, screeched, shouted, sighed, snarled, sobbed, stammered, threatened, wailed, warned, whimpered, whined, whispered, wondered, etc.

How does one gasp or grimace words? Or shutter them? Or snarl them? Words can’t be sneered, contrary to popular opinion. Above all, don’t reach beyond physical possibility to avoid the word said. The generic verb, in this case, is the mark of a pro. Use other tools to enliven the rhythm if said becomes monotonous, which we’ll get to. The bottom line is, don’t swap out one mistake for another. A wise writer finds solutions without compromising the quality of his work.

Strong dialogue doesn’t require explanation. If you have to add the dialogue tag she questioned, , for example, either you aren’t accrediting readers with the wherewithal to figure it out or your dialogue is unclear.

Along the same lines, ly adverbs won’t compensate for vague dialogue. He said gruffly, he said gravely, she said spitefully… and they all gagged.

To tighten his writing, García Márquez eliminated the Spanish equivalent of –ly adverbs.

“Before Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” he says, “there are many. In Chronicle, I think there is one. After that, in Love there are none… It has become so natural to me that I don’t even notice anymore.”

Don’t modify said. Strong dialogue stands without a crutch. Readers know how the character delivered his line. Furthermore, weak dialogue remains weak, regardless of adverbs cluing readers in to what’s going on.

Dialogue tells us who characters are, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud versus what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what needs to be conveyed.

Narrative distance will determine how you handle your interior monologue. It’s unnecessary to set off interior monologue when writing with narrative intimacy, eg., when the line between an intimate point of view and the interior monologue is vague. In that instance, readers shift effortlessly between seeing the world through your character’s eyes and seeing the world through your character’s mind. When your narrative is in a different voice set the interior monologue off with italics. If the distinction is sharp, you could use thinker attributions (he thought, she thought), but if you’re writing from a single point of view thinker attributions are unnecessary, as your readers will know who is thinking.

In speech, we communicate with actions as well as with words. Even though live dialogue is disjointed or half-spoken, our facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and other body language contribute to our meaning. In writing, we portray this body language through beats.

Instead of writing, he said angrily, show us. Give us the stiffening of the man’s body, his voice dropping and hands clenching. When dialogue is ironic, give us visual context that shows the character’s emotion. John sighed and shook his head. “Oh sure, this’ll be loads of fun.” Who needs to be told that John’s comment was said sarcastically? No one.

Read through your manuscript and make sure you’re not saying anything twice—first in your dialogue, and then in an dialogue tag or beat. Alex covered her face in her hands. “I am so embarrassed.” In this example, you don’t need the beat. The line says what you want to convey.

For the most part, though, beats, also called action tags, are a useful tool. As the dialogue proceeds, beats develop the scene and characters. They also help you weave a character’s thoughts, feelings, or back-story into the action. What’s more, beats let you control the pace of the dialogue to create excitement, suspense, and drama.

Ellen gets up, walks to the door of her office, and closes it. Turning to Jim, she tells him that a file is missing. Jim reacts with a question or comment. He might look puzzled or worried. Ellen tells him that she locked up the file the night before, and now it’s gone. Maybe Jim avoids looking at her or maybe he stares while Ellen is wondering if she can trust Jim, unsure of how much she can say.

Here’s the dialogue in stripped-down form:

“We’ve got a problem,” Ellen said.
“The Leland file. I locked it up last night, but now it’s gone.”
“Big deal,” Jim said. “Just print out another copy.”
“Jim,” Ellen said, “it’s gone.”

This bare-bones version might work, but it feels flat and distances readers from the characters.

Ellen walked to the door of her office and pulled it shut. “Jim,” she said, turning to him, “we’ve got a problem.”
Jim looked up from prying the lid off his Starbucks. “Yeah?”
“The Leland file. I locked it up last night, but now it’s gone.”
“Big deal.” Jim took a big gulp of coffee. “So print out another copy.”
“Jim,” Ellen said, “it’s gone.”

Here’s another variation:

“We’ve got a problem,” Ellen said, watching Jim’s face.
“Yeah?” His look said nothing.
“The Leland file. I locked it up last night, but now it’s gone.”
Jim shrugged. “Big deal. Just print out another copy.”
“Jim,” Ellen said, “it’s gone.”

A good approach is to write your dialogue, and then go back to see whether a beat or two might suggest emotion, keep the scene vivid, or add suspense by providing pauses.

Beats require a delicate touch, fine tuning, and an ear for the music of speech. Keep the beats to a minimum, as too many will interrupt the action.

Once into the scene, you don’t need a dialogue tag each time someone speaks—especially in longer exchanges. One tag after another tends to interrupt the flow.

“What do you mean?” Paul said.
“You heard me,” Harriet said.
“Am I supposed to read your mind?” Paul asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Harriet said.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on or not?” Paul said.

This is a situation where beats would tweak the rhythm.

“What do you mean?” Paul said.
Harriet looked away. “You heard me.”
“Am I supposed to read your mind?” he asked.
“I didn’t say that.”
He grabbed her by the arm. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on or not?”

Particularly with longer stretches of dialogue with two or more people speaking, be sure to use dialogue tags or beats to keep scene vivid and characters distinguishable. Readers shouldn’t struggle to track who’s saying what. If they become confused, the spell is broken.

Keep in mind that emotions take time. Beats give readers space on the page to feel along with them. When you do it too much, however, it will leaden your dialogue, as in the following example.

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Nell said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Bart said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed. “I guess.”
Nell chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Jess’ shoved him in that locker.”
Bart reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Nell arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Bart put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Nell pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Who cares? We can’t tune in because there’s too much business in between.

When filling out your dialogue, ask yourself:

  • How often do I interrupt the dialogue?
  • What are my beats describing? Familiar everyday actions, such as dialing a telephone or buying groceries?
  • How often do I repeat a beat? Are my characters always looking out of windows or lighting cigarettes?
  • Do my beats help illuminate your characters? Are they individual or general actions anyone might do under just about any circumstances?
  • Do my beats fit the rhythm of your dialogue? Read it aloud and find out.

See these principles in action in excerpts from acclaimed novels.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist