Sunday, August 12, 2012

He Said, She Said, Who Said?



"Who's speaking?"

"I don't know."

"How can we find out?"

"Oh, there are ways."

The dialog tag exists to solve a problem posed above. In any exchange between two characters, the reader needs to know who's speaking.

If you read old books you may have seen this:

CHR. What is the meaning of your laughter?
ATHEIST. I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are...
CHR. Why, man, do you think we shall not be received?
ATHEIST. Received!  There is no such place as you dream of in all this world.
CHR. But there is in the world to come.

In the 1600s, John Bunyan could get away without quotation marks. He got the job done, but nowadays we have these new fangled things that the writer is responsible for. Artfully solving the problem of telling the reader who's speaking took up a lot of discussion. I learned a great deal from my writers groups at this point and found myself repeating these mantras:

14    Minimize use of dialog tags.
15    A bit of body language can cue who’s speaking.
16    As well as the intent of the speaker: interrogator vs interrogate-e.
17    “Proper names can cue who’s speaking, Mulder.” “Is that so, Scully?”
18    But if you must use a dialog tag, use “said.”

The advantage of John Bunyan's approach was that you always knew exactly who was speaking because his/her name was immediately before the utterance. However, you can occasionally unambiguously identify the speaker without the use of a dialog tag.

14    Minimize use of dialog tags. 

Very early in going to writers groups I had a friend tell me my prose sounded wooden. I revised my text by merely removing dialog tag and suddenly the text flowed much more naturally. In a ping-pong conversation between two characters, say Mulder and Scully, you can assign utterances to the first and second person in the scene by counting odd and even: utterances 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 belong to Mulder and utteranes 2, 4, 6, 8 belong to Scully. In such a conversation, you can skip the dialog tags.
Trouble is that in a long exchange the reader may lose count. You probably want to put back a dialog tag every so often to keep everyone in sync.

Another trouble is that a character may speak twice and throw off the even/odd count.

15    A bit of body language can cue who’s speaking.

"Why, man?" Christian lifted an eyebrow. "Do you think we shall not be received?"

The action of lifting an eyebrow by Christian reflects a quizzical mental attitude and putting that description here makes it clear that he's the speaker.

This does two things for your prose. It makes the exchange seem less wooden, and it also adds description to the scene.

A well written scene has two or three things going simultaneously. I love the scene in the movie Fletch where Fletch is getting an infodump from a beautiful woman while an angry man is pounding on the door demanding entrance.

16    As well as the intent of the speaker: interrogator vs interrogate-e.

Go back to the conversation between Christian and Atheist shown above. Every question is asked by Christian and every declaration is made by Atheist. You really don't need dialog tags when you have one guy asking all the questions and the other guy answering them.

This extends to roles as well. Suppose you have a master and slave in a scene. Utterances that are clearly dominant, or subordinate can be inferred by the reader to belong to the right character.

How about a scene with an amorous young man pursuing a girl who's playing hard to get? No need to waste any words on he said/she said.

17    “Proper names can cue who’s speaking, Mulder.” “Is that so, Scully?”

When you've got an extended exchange between two people and you don't want to break up the rhythm with dialog tags, you can just slip in the other person's name. You can't do it every time, but you can get away with it here and there.

18    But if you must use a dialog tag, use “said.”

There's a lot of words you can use for dialog tags: shouted, exclaimed, asked, questioned, demanded, etc. And other mantras would suggest you use them instead of said because these words bring a lot more drama than plain vanilla said.

This is because dialog tags tend to become invisible to reader. You want them to do their job of telling the reader who's speaking and get out of the way without drawing attention to themselves.

Is this a hard and fast rule?

No, none of the mantras are hard and fast rules.

I went through my anthology Finding Time to see how well, or poorly, I'd followed these mantras then dissected the exchange in light of these mantras. Could I apply the mantras better? Probably.

Count the number of dialog tags. And count the times I use "said."

“Can you tell me anything—rumors, innuendo, gossip—about Jack that isn’t recorded anywhere?”
Nell couldn’t think of anything at first. Then she remembered and involuntarily swallowed.
Schlomo noticed. “What is it?”
“It’s nothing.”
“I can tell from your physiology that it is not nothing.”
“It’s something King Solomon’s man, Benaiah, said in Jerusalem.”
“Benaiah Ben Jehoiada?”
She nodded. “He said that Jack is demon possessed.”
Schlomo scratched his head and thought for a moment before speaking. “Did he say that Jack has an evil spirit?”
“I suppose. I dismissed it as religious mumbo-jumbo. He said it was going to get Jack and everyone around him killed. He said to either arrange his death or for him to get laid.”
“Nell, Benaiah was giving you a psychological evaluation. He couldn’t very well express it in Freudian categories.”
“That makes more sense than demon possession. So, when he said to get him a woman, he was recommending counseling?”
Schlomo nodded. “It is absolutely criminal that nobody did a psych eval on him. He’s a walking time bomb.”


  1. Yes, "said" is it hands down but I also love using action to show who is speaking as well - just like you do in your excerpt. Thanks for the reminder on this!

  2. I favor somewhat too many tags than too few, since it's annoying to have to play accounting games to figure out who's talking. Another solution is to have characters who have distinctive voices. In a science fiction novel that I'm trying to get published, I have a character who is from North Carolina. His talk is pure country--or what I imagine it will be in five-hundred years. It's always clear that he's the speaker of his lines.

  3. Dialogue is often the trickiest part of writing, but it's the part that really makes a piece come alive. I'm in your camp — said is my preferred tag. Anything else distracts from the exchange and I feel that if I do my job right, tone and volume will be adequately conveyed by the words I've put into my character's mouths. If I have to clarify whether he asked or whether he shouted, I probably need to rewrite the dialogue.

    Great post!

  4. I much prefer the use of "asked" when a question is posed in a dialogue. Excessive tags can make an audiobook unbearable.

  5. I think that "asked" is probably preferred to "said" for an interrogative.


Those more worthy than I: