I recently received a rather unexpected comment on something I had written, and I think I did a good job of responding politely. Like most writers, I greatly look forward to comments, either positive or negative. Naturally, we like the positive nods because it means, usually, we did something well. I pause with usually because there are readers who regularly write “great job” no matter how great or poor your “job” might have been.
Some of us actually prefer negative comments because there is always the potential for someone to accurately point out something that’s inaccurate. No matter how carefully we revise, there are always spelling, punctuation, or other errors we will miss. Just today I was lucky enough to have a friend find that I had written “were” when it should have been “where,” or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, my thanks to Sverrir.
Another reason to enjoy negative comments is so we can learn something we previously had not known. For example, last week I read a short story in which the writer used “mom” and “dad” several times, but too often he capitalized them incorrectly. I left a comment explaining the rules for capitalizing titles such as mom, dad, grandmother, uncle, etc. I have not yet returned to his blog to see if my comment was appreciated. Probably not well, but that’s not what I’m here to write about.
A few weeks ago I wrote a flash fiction piece for which I found a critical remark from a reader who did not like my attributions. I only used “he said” and “she said” instead of things like “he exclaimed” or “she cried” etc. Perhaps you can tell, but this inspired another “Writing 2.0” blog post, of which you are now in the middle.
You might not know that dialogue is my strongest writing skill, and part of dialogue is attribution, of course. I go along with advice from Ernest Hemingway, whom I paraphrase:
If your dialogue is written well, you don’t need anything more than “he said” or “she said.”
Let’s think about that.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she asked.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.
Putting aside the fact that I hear this on a daily basis, let’s look at the difference between the two sentences. One used “asked” and one used “said.” Only 99% of you will tell me that “asked” is correct, to which I respond, “Why?” I know it’s a question, yeah, because of that curly thing. I do not need the attribution of “asked” to know it’s a question. Whether the spoken words are interrogative or declarative, she still “said” something. If you asked, you spoke. And if you spoke, you said. Nobody is going to read “What the hell is wrong with you?” and not know it was a question when it is NOT followed by “she asked.” And if you don’t know it’s a question, then you don’t know how to read.
Hopefully, you never suffered through any of the Twilight books. While reading the first two – because my kid asked (not said) me too – I had a list of some horrible attributions. Can’t find the list, so I’ll recreate them as best I can.
“I don’t really care,” she said staring out the window abstractedly.
This uses “said,” but it adds the stupid adverb “abstractedly.” It could be the writer really meant “distractedly,” but this is what was printed.
This next line was written as an answer to a question:
“No,” he disagreed.
Really? Are readers unaware that “no” signifies disagreement?
I think you get the idea. I’m going to put down a few lines of dialogue, each with two choices for attribution. You decide which works better, and feel free to explain your choices.
“Holy batshit!” he exclaimed / she said / (or nothing).
“Get away from my car!” she shouted / she said / (or nothing).
“Shh. They’ll hear us,” she whispered / he said / (or nothing).
“Please! No! Wait!” he cried / he said / (or nothing).
Most writers will go with the first choices of exclaimed, shouted, whispered, and cried because they are the easiest choices. Really, you can’t lose because nobody will complain. However, I will submit that the context is enough so that we only need said. I will go even further as to say my preference would be nothing.
Let me be clear about something that was lost in translation until I was reminded by List of X. I am not saying NEVER use words like shouted, cried, and whispered. I AM saying that if you spend time using a thesaurus to find unique attributions because you think it makes you a better writer – don’t. It doesn’t make you a better writer. Use those other words sparingly, but stick mainly with “said” or “asked.”
Your job as a writer is not to teach me new vocabulary. Your job as a writer is to teach me a new story.
Of course we would need more narrative around the quotes, but I would wager that there would be enough context included that we wouldn’t need anything more than just the dialogue. In context, there likely would be no mistaking which character would be exclaiming, shouting, whispering, or crying. For example:
Luke watched in amazement as Tex rode the bull well beyond nine seconds. “Holy batshit!”
Considering that Tex is riding the bull, it is not very likely he would also yell “Holy batshit!” It is more likely that Luke would have said this as Tex is probably unable to speak.
Marie was walking through the parking lot when she saw two boys crouched next to one of her tires. “Get away from my car!”
Thanks to the set up, we know there’s only one possible person who could say this.
“I think the kids are awake,” David said to his wife.
“Shh! They’ll hear us.”
It is safe to assume his wife had answered him, and it is safe to assume she whispered.
The gunman raised his pistol, taking aim at Joseph’s forehead. “Please! No! Wait!”
Anyone want to guess who would have said this line?
Another instance in which poorly written dialogue drives me up a wall is when to use names in direct address. For example:
“Diane, can you answer the phone?”
“Can you answer the phone?”
The obvious difference here is the use of a name in direct address, when you directly speak to a specific person. Most writers use this unnecessarily and incorrectly. More often than not, written dialogue involves only two people at a time. If that is the case, why use the other person’s name if there are only two people? If a married couple named Diane and Jack are talking to each other, they know only the two of them are present. They can’t possibly accidentally talk to someone else. If Jack only says, “Diane, can you answer the phone?” there is no way Diane could ever say, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were talking to me.” So please believe that 9 times out of 10, you won’t need to use the name. But what about the other 1 out of 10?
Let’s put it in context.
Jack was heading for the bathroom when the phone rang. “Can you answer the phone?”
You want to guess who is making this statement? Jack or Diane? Should be easy. That’s 9 out of 10. What about that leftover 1? Let’s give that a shot.
“I don’t either.”
“I don’t either, Jack.”
I’m going to add context, and then you tell me which one is the better choice.
After ten minutes of nothing but forks stabbing at chicken and vegetables, Jack broke the silence. “I don’t understand why you got fired.”
“I don’t either.”
“I don’t either, Jack.”
In the first one, without the name, we can assume that Diane is unhappy about being fired. As previously stated, we usually don’t use the other person’s name when there are only two people – unless we are angry and feel a need to direct anger towards that person. It brings emphasis and intent. It kind of throws something back at or sort of reduces the other person.
Try it out with a friend, or your significant other. Say it to them, or let them say it to you. When you hear your name, you will feel something, and it won’t be a hug. Maybe more like a dart. Or, maybe you already know what I’m talking about because it already happens too often.
Yes, I’m speaking from experience.
Good luck, Writer.
33 thoughts on “Writing 3.1 – “He said, she said””
‘i enjoyed this,’ she said.
“i’m very glad you did!” he exclaimed appreciatively and smilingly.
My response to “Can you answer the phone?” would likely be “Yes, I can” but not to answer it. When I was teaching and a student asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”, I’d always say “I hope so.” Of course, the proper question was “May I go to the bathroom?” 🙂
Can’t help myself. (No “Rich”, since you know to whom I’m talking.)
P.S. I did enjoy the post.
you’re right about the difference between “can you…” and “will you…” or “would you might…” however, “can you…” is what most people say, even though it is not what we really should say.
thanks for stopping by.
Just having some grammar fun, Rich, which I know you’ll always get and appreciate. I enjoy stopping by. Thanks for sharing so many of my posts on FB.
enjoying the fun. thanks for playing along. very happy to share things worthy of sharability.
In my opinion, “whispered”, “shouted”, “exclaimed”, “cried”, and the like would be better than the plain “said”, because these words carry additional information – volume, tone of voice, or emotion. And because you can say any of these phrases with a different intonation, a generic “said” (or nothing) allows for wider range of volume and tone than a more specific word, so that when reader visualizes the situation where the phrase was used, he or she will probably visualize easier when the range is limited. And wasn’t there a writer who said “show, don’t tell”?
You are coming reminded me of something I forgot to add to this. So thank you very much for that. I will have to go back and add a paragraph and color it blue and explain what it is all about And of course Who reminded me of it.
As for the showing and not telling, That is about action and not dialogue.
But that’s the thing, replacing “said” with “shouted” or “whispered” turns a dialogue into an action. But I agree with you about not overdoing those words, and thank you for the mention.
The dialogue and the context of the moment should be written well enough that using “shouted” or “whispered” seems redundant. But I know most readers like those words.
Do you mind if I share your insight?
I would be flattered. Please do.
Enjoyed your post. I agree the reader should be able to tell who is speaking without tag lines and that narrative and setting help set the emotional context of the scene. I do think, however, there are times when a more active verb can be used in a tag line. For instance, when Joseph had a gun to his head, maybe he croaked or whispered “Please, no, wait.” Croaked, whispered, cried and said all say different things about how Joseph reacted. Use of the exclamation mark doesn’t always speak to volume tone. Luke may have muttered “Holy Batshit” as he waited for his gate to open. 🙂
So let me ask you if you like the additional information in dialogue that lets the reader know what it is that person is doing (if it has not been made clear in the prep), or do you find that to be cumbersome?
i want the information either in the dialogue or in the action. not the attribution. don’t tell me that someone shouted. instead, create a scene in which i can tell someone had to be shouting.
That was what I meant, though I did not understand how you used the terms. It would be the additional action in the dialogue that I look for myself. I follow the “said” frame of thought, but I want more than that, I want action in the dialogue when it is adding information, attitude, or some underlying process that is not directly evident in the base dialogue.
That’s one of the things I always remember our English teacher saying at school – she said that if you use attributions like whispered/shouted/exclaimed etc then it distracts from the dialogue and interrupts the flow because the word gets noticed and so the reader’s attention is taken away from the dialogue, whereas if you just use he said/she said then the reader simply acknowledges who is the one speaking but doesn’t really notice the word “said” and therefore it flows better and the focus remains on the dialogue itself. She also said the same as you about it being even better to use no attribution at all during the times where it’s obvious who is speaking.
After reading this I scurried over to my current writing project to determine whether I am falling into the ‘bad’ dialog trap or the ‘good’ dialog pathways. I was so happy to find even you, master of dialog would approve.
Enjoyed my lesson for the day.
hopefully as much as i enjoyed bringing it to you. happy friday.
Reblogged this on Speak Through Your Heart and Your Mind Will Follow and commented:
Heehee very interesting
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This is a great overview of dialogue attribution. I was once an over-user of non-said attributions, scouring the thesaurus for other words in order to prove creativity. I then was converted to the “said” or non-attribution camp.
I think of ‘said’ like ‘the’ or ‘of’ – it is an invisible word, a quick note that sits in the background allowing the story to take center stage.
that’s exactly how i look at it. superfluous attribution becomes a distraction.
I feel compelled to argue you with you for the sake of the true nature of a good “He said, she said”. Sadly, not because your wrong. That out of the way, I must say I think names come in handy in dialogue not simply as direct address but emphasis (especially and often between spouses). Trust me if I say “Can you answer the Phone?” Or “Timothy Patrick O’Brien Can you answer the phone?” One is simply a request. The second- you are in deep doo-doo my friend.
Oh shit. I wrote the above and then read on further…..you’re right again. Bull’s-eye! 😉
Okay…..I have often found myself yelling “Shh!” Even while knowing I should be whispering it. Ugh… I give up. This is just getting pathetic. “You’re right….this time” she said.
i enjoy being right. but i enjoy more you being right.
Aw, you didn’t include my favourite line from the Twilight series: ‘Grrr.’ That is an actual sentence from, I think, the second book, and it isn’t dialogue.
I read 3 of the 4 books (they were in a villa we were staying in on holiday, and I thought ‘Why not, it can’t be that bad’ – big mistake) and my inner Hulk became almost impossible to repress in response to this desecration of the English language. When I came across the ‘Grrr’ sentence, I shouted “Really?” so loud, I woke the dogs in the alley outside.
Grrr. Master of language, that Stephanie Meyer.
Tour de force, five stars.
She also used ‘chagrin’ twice in one book, possibly the same as the sighting of ‘Grrr’. Wouldn’t have stood out as much if her language had been more, you know, elaborate.
most of her writing sounded like a high school sophomore had written it. no offense to high school sophomores.
If your narrative is really tight, you don’t need the names. Great examples, Rich. I especially like “Your job as a writer is not to teach me vocabulary. Your job is to tell me a new story.” Yes! It sounds like a famous quote.
Thanks miss. I like it too, but many disagree with us.
I agree about the unnessary tags. Anyone should be able to figure out who said those things. 🙂 —Susan
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Happy Monday.