Good dialogue is easy to read and hard to write. But there’s one very simple thing you can do right now that will improve it immediately.
Some years ago, when I was teaching Creative Writing to undergraduates, I asked a particularly promising young writer why he seemed hell-bent on avoiding “said” in all his dialogue. His characters declared and proclaimed and announced and rejoined and even prefaced. But none of them actually said anything when they spoke.
“I’ve been told to avoid repetition,” he responded.
“By whom?” I enquired.
“By everybody,” he alleged. “And besides, it’s more colourful.”
Except it isn’t, is it? It’s annoying. And distracting. And it throws readers right out of the story. It might even make them laugh. Unintentionally, which are the worst kind of laughs.
That promising young writer went on to become a very successful young writer and he learned, like the rest of us, that sometimes “said” is the best word for the job.
It’s all about communication
Speech is the most common and obvious means of human communication. We spent many thousands of years evolving our ability to do it, so it would be a shame not to use it after all that practice. And readers love to see it in fiction (and non-fiction or memoir, for that matter) because they know that it’s going to be understandable, simple, and to the point.
Most of us love to talk to each other in real life, and when we read a book, we love to see other people talking to each other on our behalf. Next time you’re in a bookstore — assuming you can find one that’s still open — take a surreptitious look at your fellow browsers. Some of them might be reading the first page or two of a book they’re interested in; others will be studying the blurb on the back cover, or the table of contents. But many of them will be simply flipping through the pages, maybe stopping now and again to scan a few paragraphs, then flipping on some more.
These people are not trying to speed read War and Peace in the store to save the cost of buying it. They’re looking to see how much dialogue it contains. Whether they realize it or not, they’re mentally racking up the percentage of speech in the book, and the higher it is, the more attractive it’s likely to be to them.
Dialogue is important
And that’s why we need to make it as easy to read as possible. The reader expects simplicity and clarity, so that’s what we should give them. Yes, repetition should indeed be avoided (at least unintentional repetition — rhetorical writing might use repetition to drive home a forceful point, for example) but “said” is almost invisible to the reader. It slips by on the page without drawing attention to itself, and as a result, the dialogue springs into the reader’s mind without hindrance. By contrast, “bellow”, “declaim”, “confirm” and all the others get in the way by virtue of their conspicuous nature.
These “alternatives” have become known as said-bookisms, a term coined by the American science fiction author James Blish (writing under the pseudonym William Atheling Jr.) way back in the 1940s, after a slim volume entitled The Said Book . . . which lists dozens of ways of saying “said”. Ramsey Campbell’s excellent short story “Next Time You’ll Know Me” puts the concept into humorous fictional practice.
Now, as with all alleged rules in writing, you should take them with a high-blood-pressure-inducing dose of salt. There are times when “said” isn’t the best word. “Asked” and “replied” spring immediately to mind, and the reader will forgive the occasional “he roared” or “she purred” if the context is right and you’re not using these odd verbs to tell rather than show. Just use them sparingly and judiciously.
In fact, quite a bit of the time, we can get away with no dialogue tags at all, which makes the dialogue fairly zip along. When there are only a couple of speakers, speaking in turn, we can keep the focus much more clearly on what is being said, rather than how it’s being said.
Consider this brief exchange (it won’t win me a Pulitzer, but it’ll suffice to illustrate the point):
Emma turned back to the map. “You should’ve taken the last left,” she said. “About a mile back. Like I told you.”
“That would’ve taken us back the way we came,” Alan said. “Like I told you.”
Emma exhaled slowly. Beyond the windscreen, darkness rushed at them. With the map light on above her head, she could see her reflection, eyes glittering, hair gleaming gold.
“Forget it,” she said and balled the map into a crumpled globe. She threw it at him.
“What the hell,” he said, and braked hard. He threw the steering wheel around and pulled up at the side of the road. He plucked the crumpled ball from his lap and waved it at her. “Are you trying to kill us?”
Us? she thought sourly, and said, “I told you we should’ve bought a satnav.”
Alan wrenched the handbrake on. “If you could read a map, we wouldn’t need one.”
“I can read a map. You can’t take directions.”
“Maybe I could if you gave me them before we were miles past where we needed to be.”
“And maybe we’d be on the right road if you weren’t such an ass.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Emma.”
The only dialogue tag here is “said”, except for the last five lines, where there is no tag at all — in the first of these, “Alan wrenched the handbrake on” acts as a kind of tag as it indicates who’s speaking, and does the work of showing how he speaks. Also, note how the dialogue is punctuated by action so that the words aren’t just appearing in a vacuum; they exist in, and as a consequence of, the characters and their environment.
And finally, consider how invisible “said” is. You don’t notice it, and there’s certainly no sense of repetition.
Editing your speech attributions
When you’re pawing through your novel, editing it for the nth time, try to bear the following points in mind. As I’ve said in another article, there are no rules in writing, and as with any creative art, you should do what your heart tells you to do — but if you want to communicate as effectively as possible, you could do worse than think about these:
1. Look out for those pesky overblown tags like “bellowed” and “confirmed” — I have actually seen a novel draft that contained the line, “’I have it here,’ she prefaced.”
2. Replace most of them with a simple “said”. “Asked” and “replied” are generally okay, if used sparingly and even the occasional “he cried” or “she hissed” is fine in the right context.
3. However, beware of overusing “said” when it might be more effective to dispense with tags altogether. Short expressions are particularly prone to making “said” visible:
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“Why?” he said.
“Just because,” she said.
“That’s no answer,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
Take away all but the first tag and this becomes much more readable.
4. Be aware of the dreaded double-telling, where the dialogue tag simply tells us something that’s already evident in the dialogue itself:
“If you don’t step back, I’ll slap you,” she threatened.
“Drop your weapon!” the cop ordered.
5. Watch out for tags in the format “said Jane” rather than “Jane said”. Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with either, but the former is nowadays considered rather old-fashioned, and as Browne and King say in Self Editing for Writers, “Reversing the [name and dialogue tag — ‘said Jane’] though often done, is less professional . . . [it] has a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavor (‘Run spot, run,’ said Jane).”
6. Consider removing tags altogether, if you find a passage of dialogue with only two speakers, to help the conversation move along briskly. You may need the occasional reminder if it’s a long passage, or you can insert an action to indicate who’s speaking (as with Alan wrenching the handbrake in the previous example).
There’s a lot more to dialogue than he said/she said, and we’ll come back to it in future articles. In particular, naturalistic dialogue causes much wailing and gnashing of teeth for many writers, and no overview of self-editing would be complete without a perusal of dialogue punctuation.
But for now, sharpen your blue and red pencils, get your manuscript out of the trunk, and get to work on simplifying those speech tags.
And if anyone asks you why, tell them it’s because I said so.