Tuesday, August 10, 2010

He Said, She Said

I don't know whether this will become a regular segment, mes auteurs, but from time to time my myriad opinions on topics not strictly sales-related begin to back up, and I find I have to share them (whether or not they've been solicited).

"So," he said, "let us discuss dialog tags."

If you're not familiar, dialog tags are words like "said," "asked," "yelled," "shouted," &c that modify passages spoken by characters in short stories and novels to indicate speech (and sometimes the manner of speech). Some authorities maintain that all of them are acceptable, others that only "said" and "asked" are okay, and even a few hardline minimalists who only accept "said." I vacillate between the second and third categories.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I find properly done dialog tags beyond "said" and "asked" distracting. If characters are constantly hollering, yelling, whispering, yodeling, beseeching, imploring, choking, rasping, and croaking, I can't focus as well on the story. I should be able to tell whether a character is doing these things within the context of the scene; authors shouldn't need to communicate this to readers directly.

Which of the below do you find more effective?

"No!" Anthony shouted.

"No!" Anthony said. Susan recoiled at the force of his reply.

You probably don't even need the exclamation mark in that second one. Is it Shakespeare? No. Does it get the point across? I think so.

Second, I find that the majority of dialog tags beyond "said" and "asked" simply aren't done properly. For example, you can't "smile" or "chuckle" a line of dialog. You can smile while saying something or chuckle after saying something, but "'No,' Sue smiled," and "'Why not,' Dad chuckled" are both annoying and physically impossible. (Please note the difference between "'Yes,' Sue smiled" and "'Yes.' Sue smiled.")

Final thought: I think "asked" is sort of superfluous, since the question mark in the line of dialog already tells you that what is being said is being asked, but I find it relatively unobtrusive, so I don't have a major beef with it.

What do you think, meine Autoren?


  1. Agreed on all points except yelling and whispering, although I think they should be done sparingly. Sometimes, though, you just have to give a quick description of how your character sounds so you don't interrupt the narrative too much. But that's the only time I think it's appropriate.

  2. Whispered is a dialog tag that would be all right with me. Though I suppose one could write, "Forgive me," he said. Susan almost did not hear the whispered words.

    I always laugh when someone writes "hissed" as a dialog tag, especially since it inevitably follows something like, "Get out of here," he hissed.

    Can't really make sibilant sound when using non-sibilant words. Unless you're a snake. Or wearing dentures?

  3. I agree. And only use dialog tags sparingly--e.g. when it's necessary to show who's doing the talking.

  4. Never deal in absolutes. Of course, that's an absolute, so take it with a grain of salt.

    I'm not bothered by an occasional non-said/asked dialogue tag, but I agree that excessive use is distracting.

    I think asked is perfectly suitable for questions. You ask questions, you don't say questions.

    "I'm now going to open the microphone so you can say your questions."


    "I'm now going to open the microphone so you can ask your questions."

    Granted the context is different, but I think the general point is the same.

    Next topic for discussion: the absence of dialogue tags. When does it improve the flow, and at what point do you lose track of who's saying what?

  5. I disagree on the smiling and chuckling examples. I actually like "No," Sue smiled. more than "No," Sue said, smiling. or "No." Sue smiled.

    The impossibility of it doesn't bother me. Language evolves.

  6. To be honest, if I see "No!" he said, I am immediately pulled from the story. Your punctuation is exclamatory but your word choice is declarative. The incongruity of the two put side by side pulls me out of your story and makes me question which you should have chosen or how the sentence could have been better.

    In this case, I would recommend "No!" Susan recoiled at the force of Anthony's reply.

  7. I generally use tags to denote who's speaking, rather than how they said it. Unless that becomes part of the scene. Say, a character who was previously speaking normally suddenly starts shouting.

    The only reason I don't use said all the time is that I get tired of it during long passages of dialogue. So, instead, I introduce action. "Well, I don't think so." He got up and began pacing.

    In fact, I hate it when people include character A's action as part of Character B's dialogue. It's confusing.

    "Hello," Sue said. Dan looked abashed. "I know this seems kinda stupid..."

    Technically, Sue is still speaking, but it feels and read to me like Dan is.

  8. Agreed with Anne Louise. I rarely even use "said," because it's so much more effective to use action.

    "No!" Anthony flung the glass against the wall.

    "No!" Anthony recoiled from her touch.

    "No!" Anthony paced around the desk.

    All of these actions convey different information about Anthony. They contribute to his character. I'd rather use my space for this than "he said" and "she said."

  9. I can tell you right now--in your second example, you'll get fussed at for mixing your POV. Anthony's statement should probably be on a separate line from Susan's reaction.

    I think that, if it were me, I'd get rid of the tag altogether. The punctuation tells me that his statement was rather vehemently spoken. Combined with her reaction, it let's me infer what's going on and I'm more connected with the story and action.

  10. In the example given, I actually prefer "No!" Anthony shouted.

    Assuming that tag was used to clarify who was speaking and their action/reaction, which is what I understand to be the purpose of a tag, then the second example actually has more to do with Susan. Furthermore, if you're truly a 'less is more' writer, 3 words would be preferable to 11.

    I'd also point out that saying something emphatically doesn't always elicit some kind of physical reaction from the speaker or the audience. If a parent says "No!" to their child, it isn't always followed by pacing, beating, overt hand gestures, sweating, etc.

    I think tags of any type are O.K. to use as long as it is sparingly done.

  11. As with most things, the answer is always found through context. Writing dialog tags can be confusing for a beginner and these rules reflect how it can be done without boring the reader. In practice, however, there are plenty of circumstances where a non-said or asked tag can be useful to the scene. Asked instead of said is useful when a pattern of dialog is in progress and the author needs to create a reference point but wants to keep the focus on the dialog. Even excessive use of said can be problematic. I recently listened to an audio book where "he said", "she said" was so overused it became a distraction.

    Reading aloud will usually give you a clue where these problems exist and it is easy to fix.

  12. Can't an exclamation point be used for more than just indicating shouting?

    To me:

    "No!" Anthony said.


    "No!" Anthony shouted.

    are different. The first indicates emphasis. The second, volume only.

    "I just love exclamation points!" Jane said.
    "I just love exclamation points." Jane said.

    Does the first really mean Jane was shouting at the top of her lungs about her adoration of the exclamation point?

    Also, I just used the tag "intoned" in a chapter I wrote recently, and I know that I'm probably going to have to take it out, but I really like it. I'm leaving it in as long as possible. Or...I'm leaving it in as long as possible! I wonder if my writing group (who will definitely tell me to take it out) can hear me from here?

  13. On my first pass through a book, I use tags willy-nilly. Then I do a search for them and see which ones I think can be safely eliminated and/or changed to include movement or change the wording to emphasize something.

    I agree with others: "Sue recoiled..." should start a new sentence in Sue's POV. Otherwise it gets messy.

  14. I really don't mind tags other than said/asked (and do think "asked" should be used for questions, from a grammatical point of view), but like anything else, they have to be used in moderation. Too many "intoned"s or "pontificated"s can easily be distracting, but a sprinkling throughout may add flavor.

    I agree with the posters above that "'No!' he said" and "'No!' he shouted" are different. The first is forceful, the second is loud and forceful, and the change in volume can indicate a lot: that the character either keeps his cool when angry or loses his temper, that the character is controlled vs. irrational, etc. Volume isn't always obvious from context, at least without a lot of extra words to give that little part more context.

    And what if the way the character says something, or at least the volume at which they say it, is meant to be surprising? What if you expect the character to react forcefully but she whispers her reply? Yes, these things can be shown by action, and I'm also a big fan of dropping dialogue tags and expanding the character through their physical reactions, but a couple of "whispered"s aren't going to pull me out of the story either, and might make it flow more smoothly or quickly.

  15. I prefer to leave out dialogue tags and make the dialogue and action clearly show whom is doing/saying what...but since I'm all wet behind the ears, is this a bad thing? Anyone?

  16. Haha, Yodeling!

    I agree with you on the tags. I try not to use exclamation points in my ms, either, unlike in my blog and my comments!!!

    I try to keep conversations to two people, which cuts down on the number of tags needed. But you still need some or people lose track.

  17. Joseph L. Selby above beat me to it. The dialogue tag seems unnecessary. Since "she recoiled," we know "he" -- the other participant in the conversation -- spoke. And "said" seems a pretty weak way of describing what he's doing if she's recoiling.

    That said (um), I pretty much agree with the general point, but of course there are always exceptions.

    For myself, I mostly do without dialogue tags unless it's necessary to make clear who's speaking or it improves the rhythm of a sentence by adding a necessary beat.

  18. I'm listening to an audio book in which the author uses, 'speaK' or 'I speak' all the time. eg. Speak. "Open the cage." I speak. "He'll kill me if I do."
    Also the whole book is in first person, present tense. At first I hated it but kept on listening as I had nothing else in the car with me. Now I'm used to it and will probably continue to the end which I am sure will be very depressing - but maybe not.

    I personally use what seems appropriate. Simple 'said' in a normal situation. Nothing if alternating speakers or in the midst of descriptive action. Adverb if I want to impress a mood.

  19. And this is just one example of why language is an art and not a science. New writers not confident in themselves desperately want rules so they can believe they're on equal footing with the pros as long as they're following the same rules. There is so much gray in writing it can be terrifying to the uninitiated.

    I also think what tags you use and how you use them helps define your style and voice. Guaranteed that whatever you disparage -- the use of exclams, no variance from "said", too much variance from "said", using "said" in place of "asked", ad infinitum -- someone else will come along and squee all over it. ;o)

  20. I agree with Derek Gentry. There ought not to be any absolutes as to whether or not you use a tag. Language evolves. If "said" is the best tag to get the point across in the fewest words, use it. If "shouted" works better in a particular situation, why not use it?

    In the examples Eric gave, the second option is a giant speed bump. Anthony 'says' a shouted word, Susan reacts, and I get whiplash involuntarily checking to make sure everything jives. Ugh. The first option allows me to continue with the story.

    Writers are the rule makers, not just the annoying grammar police at family functions. (I've cut way back -- on policing, not family functions.) Do you think Shakespeare stopped to check his Style Guide?

  21. As dialogue is the heart and soul of my writing, I am very aware of the designations of he/she said and their potential modifiers. For a while, in my early writing, I tried to be all Faulkner-esque and leave them out altogether. Yeah...imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not when it comes to Faulkner's dialogue. I will agree that well written dialogue needs little punctuation and no more than the requisite he said/she said, when appropriate. It should be framed in a context that the readers understand whether the situation calls for shouting, whispering, and despite what Marisa says, even the occasional hissing. :)

  22. As a reader, I very rarely process the 'saids' and 'askeds' - the dialogue will, hopefully, just flow through those words. As a writer, however, I like to shake it up with the shouteds etc.That's probably because I get conscious when examining my work that I am over using certain words.

    To look at the Anthony example by itself, shouted is probably the better choice as otherwise Susan's reaction would seem a little over the top.

  23. Fried chicken, brownies and non-said dialogue tags...everything in moderation.

    I usually use just said and ask (said with a question phrase just feels so wrong), but occasionally a shout or whisper pops up. Used sparingly, I think they add to the writing. Yes, you could say "she barely heard him"...but is that because he spoke quietly or she's going deaf? Yes, you could clarify "she barely heard him because he spoke so softly," but then why not just cut to the chase and say whisper?

    Too many shouts and murmurs and a reader would go crazy, but a little can go a long way.

  24. I know I'm a little late on this one, but it always bothers me when someone says you cannot laugh a word. I come from a family who laughs words. The hahaha-ing is happening during the word(usually "what?"), with the expulsion of breath, and not before or after it.

    You can't laugh a sentence, but if you don't allow me a laughed "what" or "Yeah" every once in awhile, you're missing a really fun sound/facial expression/tone combo with that single tag.

    To illustrate, I'm linking Bill Engvall's Dorkfish routine (sorry) where he laughs the word "what" at .35, and then "that" at 1.20. Granted they're at the end of sentences, but this is what I mean.


  25. I agree with just about everything here. I try to minimize the number of tags I use overall (even "saids"). From there I stick to "said" and "asked"--with the possible exception being a "whisper." If I want someone muttering--usually I say he was muttering without indicating what was actually said (if someone's muttering you usually can't understand them anyway), e.g., Dan walked away, muttering. -OR - Dan walked away, muttering something that sounded like "chicken biscuit." ; )

  26. This was a topic at one of our crit group meetings. I agree with you! Said sort of becomes invisible to me when I'm reading, which I suppose is a good thing.

  27. I'm straddling the line between the first and second, but I think dialogue tags should be kept to the minimum required. Constant "said" annoys me just as much as weird dialogue tags.

    Also, "quipped" should never be used. Ever. I don't want to spend five minutes staring at it trying to figure out how the heck someone "quips" something.

  28. Good blog, thank you!
    I've learned a lot about dialogue from masters such as Cormac McCarthy who manages to write pages of dialogue without any tags at all. This is my ultimate aim, if possible. But it has to be clear who is saying what, and if it isn't clear, then it has to not matter if the reader doesn't know (i.e. they feel the gist of the conversation, the emotions flying about etc, these being more important in this case than who said what).

    I do use whispered, but I might edit it out later; and I also use 'told' and 'asked' sometimes.

  29. My preferred style is to mix action and dialog in the same paragraph, so tags are usually unnecessary. You can tell who's talking because he's the one acting as well. The only other time for a tag would be to add some flavoring, such as 'with grim humor' or 'without rancor'. I did a post on a topic similar to this one, only about thoughts, tags, and italics, at http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/thinking-about-thinking/

    Marc Vun Kannon

  30. I agree with some of this. I agree with many other comments more though. I think said is over-used, to be honest, and rather blasé.

    If you're going to argue that you shouldn't follow ? with asked or ! with shouting, then why follow "these" with say? Isn't it just as redundant?

    I agree with others that say a simple "said" after something that wasn't just stated is more off-putting in its disagreement. I tend to prefer actions too when I tag my dialogue.

  31. Agree with most of this. I feel that saying he said she said is very boring and doesn’t put any creative work or thinking into your paper and after reading the same two words more than like three times it gets annoying. I feel the beat dialog does provide detail and you can in vision what they are doing. Beat is very creative and makes the dialog easy and fin to read.

  32. I believe that there is a difference between;

    "'No!' Anthony said."


    "'No!' Anothony shouted"

    I feel that as a reader, the use of the word shouted adds more emphasis to the what the writer is trying to convey. It reaches the writer on a more personal level. I think this because I dont know anyone who can shout (No!) while only saying it.

  33. Just had this subject come up.
    First, I think "saying" something and "shouting, grumbling, yelling, growling, etc" are all different things, and while a MAJORITY of things are said, sometimes they NEED to be growled or shouted for the full effect. Example:
    "You're pathetic." He said.
    "You're pathetic." He growled.
    "You're pathetic!" He said.
    "You're pathetic!" He growled.

    All four mean completely different things. 1 is just a subdued insult. 2. is an insult in anger/attack 3. is slightly emphatic. 4. is pretty damn emphatic.

    I have been debating this a lot lately. I think using these things all the time is annoying, but I find the concept that "I can't use these things at all" just plain irritating. They're there, they're fine.

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