Or He Said, She Said
Let’s take a look at dialogue. In particular, the use of the word “said” vs. other alternatives. Deciding which way to go can be confusing. Basically, there are two ends of the spectrum on this issue:
School A says: Avoid overuse of the word “said.” Vary the text up using other dialogue tags (murmured, cried, shouted, etc…). There was a thread in one of the writing groups I belong to about this. One guy said a fellow writer had sent him a list of over two hundred possible substitutions for “said.” Talk about your variety!
On the other hand, School B says: If you must use a dialogue tag at all, only use “said,” because it is an “invisible” word. This simply means that “said” is so generic that we tend to edit it out subconsciously when we read. Students at school B believes that using other descriptive dialogue tags will interrupt the flow and take the reader out of the story. This viewpoint prefers the use of action to enhance the dialogue, resorting to “said”—and pretty much nothing but “said”—only when necessary.
Which is right? Which one will help you create the most amazing manuscript possible?
Hoping to bring a little clarity to the subject, I thought I’d check out some successful writers to see how they handled extended passages of dialogue. I won’t mention the novels or authors, but my three examples are very well known in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. I’m not going to write down all of the dialogue, but I will show what the tags were for each piece (said, shouted, no tag, etc…). Where there aren’t any tags, the author either used action to convey the emotion, or nothing at all. So, here we go…
Example #1: Two books. Nebula Award, Hugo Award, nominated for Locus Award
Said – Asked – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – Asked – No tag – Asked – No tag – No tag – Said – Said – No tag – No tag – No tag
Okay, that one looks like it’s solidly in School B. Moving on…
Example #2: Series has seven novels. Hugo Award
Snapped – No tag – Said quietly – Squeaked – Raced on – Said doggedly – Said curtly – No tag – No tag – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Mumbled hopelessly – Said coldly – No tag – Said slowly and suspiciously – No tag – No tag
Okay, wait a second. A few other tags slipping in here. Snapped? Squeaked? Mumbled? And adverbs? The dreaded –ly modifiers? Adverbs as dialogue modifiers could be a topic all unto themselves. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid using adverbs (-ly) to modify dialogue tags unless you have no other options. Some big name writers advise never using them like this at all (find other options, no matter what), but as you can see by this and the next example, there are quite successful writers who do. Moving on…
Example #3: Well over a dozen novels and novellas in the series. Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and four additional nominations for the Hugo Award.
This should be a good example, right? Let’s see…
Suggested – Rejoined – Countered – Said – No tag – Remarked casually – Replied dryly – Said – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Answered sharply – No tag – Demanded – No tag – No tag – Reminded – Assented – Said – Snorted derisively – No tag – No tag
Okay. Wait. What?
Not only does it look like we have divisions between successful authors, but even the people who hand out the awards go both ways. What’s a writer to do? Well, it’s your story. You have to do whatever gets the emotion across the most effectively, yet maintains the flow of the story so that your reader doesn’t remember they’re actually reading a book.
Let’s try an example…
- “That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he said angrily.
Hmm, he’s angry. We know that because of the clunky use of the word “angrily.” But it doesn’t have a lot of impact, does it? And that whole “he said angrily” part kind of interrupts the flow.
We could try a different tag. Shorten it up a bit.
- “That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he snarled.
A little better. Dropping the adverb improves the flow, but the reader has to hesitate for the tiniest instant to define the word “snarled” in his or her head. Using tags like this also indicates the emotion. For example, how about if I had said,
- “That’s not what I mean and you know it,” he giggled.
It’s a completely different feel. But again, there is that instant in the reader’s mind where they have to make the connection. Most readers won’t notice it. Some will, and if done too often, will get distracted and maybe even stop reading the story.
Now, I should note that at this point, some reading this post may be thinking—or maybe even saying out loud—“You can’t ‘giggle’ or ‘snarl’ dialogue.” Well, there’s a Hugo winner up above who believes you can at least “squeak” dialogue, so why not giggle or snarl it? Or, if you want to hear someone laugh dialogue, try tickling a child and see if they stop laughing to say “stop” in a conversational tone of voice. And let’s not even talk about the Hugo and Nebula winner and his/her affinity for the dreaded “-ly.” But that’s neither here nor there, so let’s let it be and move on.
How about an exclamation point instead?
- “That’s not what I mean, and you know it!”
Well, the emotion still comes through because of the exclamation point, but we’re not quite sure what the emotion is unless we already knew that he was angry.
One thing to mention here: Be careful with exclamation points. Too many and you will “wear out” your reader. Less is more when using exclamation points. Using them only sparingly is much more effective than using them everywhere.
Another possibility is using action to get your point across.
- He slammed his fist on the tabletop and glared at her. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
Aha! Here, even without the exclamation mark and dialogue tag, we get a clear sense that he is angry because we can “see” that he’s upset. If you’re a writer, you’ve heard someone say “show, don’t tell.” That’s what we did here. The action we put into the scene shows the character’s emotion instead of using something like “angrily” to tell the reader how the character feels.
Using action to get your emotion across also allows the reader to experience more. In their mind, they hear the fist slamming down, they see the intense glare from the man. Maybe they imagine the table jumping just a bit from the impact. But whichever action you use (slamming the fist, throwing something against the wall, etc…), it gives the story a little more depth.
Bottom line: Use of “said,” action, or nothing at all will always allow your story to flow more smoothly and will be the least likely to take your reader out of the story.
In the end, whether to use said, dialogue tags, or something else is a decision each writer has to make on their own. I imagine most writers are going to fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. As for myself, I try to use tags as little as possible, using action or nothing at all when I can. I do not, however, absotively, posilutely restrict myself to the word “said.” If another tag seems to be to be the best way to get my point across, I’ll use it. In very rare and extreme cases, I might even (“Don’t say it!” he begged plaintively.) resort to an -ly.
I will do whatever it takes to get the emotion across the way I, as the writer, want it to come across.
Now…what will you do?
Good luck and good writing!