Writerly Wednesday–He Said/She Said

Generally speaking, there are two parts to any piece of fiction writing: the exposition and the dialogue. The interface between the two is the dialogue tag: “he said”, “she said”, and any and all variations thereof.

Exactly what to do with those tags is a hot topic among writers. Seriously. Fur flies sometimes over what constitutes a “saidism”, how many adjectives are too many, whether “beats” are annoying ticks or not, and so on. The way I see it, there are a few things that go into effective use of dialogue tags.

Clarity. The most important bit of information we need to know is who’s talking. A lot of the time, this requires a dialogue tag. Sometimes the dialogue tag requires a name instead of a pronoun. This is really dependent on what’s going on around the dialogue. If we’ve just had a paragraph talking all about Bill’s thoughts on XYZ, and he then opens his mouth to echo what he was just thinking, then we know it’s Bill. If, however, we’re listening on Bill’s thoughts, and those thoughts are interrupted by Susie, then we’re going to need a dialogue tag telling us it’s Susie who’s speaking. Sometimes, you have two people going back and forth, and we don’t need names because it’s clear who’s saying what (though a tag here and there helps to keep the reader on track). And if there is a “he” and a “she”,  you can just use the pronoun (convenient!).

We also might need to know a bit of information about how the word is being said. Is Bill shouting, whispering, or otherwise saying his words in some super-special way? If this isn’t entirely obvious from the surrounding exposition, use a tag.

Now, this is where “saidisms” might creep in. A “saidism” is using a slightly silly word instead of “said”. “Said” is basically invisible to your reader–they don’t notice it. To say someone “grinned” or “laughed” their words is nonsensical (how can words be “grinned”?) and overwrought. It should be more-or-less obvious from the situation and the words themselves what’s going on. When you pile it on using tags, it comes across as trying too hard.Again, I want to emphasize how illogical some “saidisms” are.

Variety. Yes, “said” is invisible, but it would get boring pretty fast if every big of dialogue were tagged with “said Bill”. You can switch it up a bit by breaking up sentences in different ways (“‘What,’ said Bill, ‘do you think you’re doing?'” is subtly different from, “‘What do you think you’re doing?’ said Bill.”) You can use some tags that aren’t said (though they have to make sense! and don’t use them all the time!). (“‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Bill yelled,” is different from, “‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Bill said.”)

Color. I’m talking about the occasional adjective in addition to the occasional tag like “cried” “shouted” or “whispered”. Yes, adjectives! They are not a cardinal sin. It’s somewhat modish to shudder at the very idea of adjectives being tacked on to a dialogue tag, but that’s an overreaction to a few bad eggs. Adjectives are useful. Saying that someone “said quietly” isn’t the same as saying “whispered” and “said petulantly” might just be more effective than trying to convey petulance in other ways. Whatever gets across the meaning most vividly to your reader is the best option.

Beats. I love beats in dialogue. I do. My characters are always saying things “with a shrug” or “as he/she picked up the cup of tea”. Or they stand up and walk across the room and then talk again. Hot tip, giving your characters a prop can be useful–though you have to make sure that the way your character interacts with that prop actually says something about them as a person (a shrug can carry a lot of meaning; tapping a tea cup with the tip of your finger conveys impatience, while sliding it around on the table conveys distraction). Beats also help stave off the dreaded “talking head” effect, where it seems your characters are just voices in a void.

Rhythm. This is so hard to define. But where you put tags, how long they are, and how much information they convey are all part of how quickly the conversation rolls along. And how long you want it to roll along depends on the mood. If we’re in the middle of the action, or it’s a particularly tense conversation, then we want to keep the outside stuff like beats and adjectives to a minimum. If we’re lingering over some old memories or getting to know our characters, then we can slow down and notice things like body language and what Bill or Susie are fiddling with as they speak.

So, those are just a few thing to think about when writing dialogue tags . . .

 

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