Makin’ It Strong: He Said/She Said
As an editor, I’ve seen some bad writing, some good writing, some great writing. I’ve seen a few grammar mistakes that mar otherwise good manuscripts, and I’ve seen writing made weaker by taking the easy way out. I will be addressing some of these “easy” writing tricks that sap the strength out of your writing.
We’ve all been there. You’re engrossed in a book, come across a passage with a great deal of dialogue and suddenly you can’t figure out who’s talking. You maybe go up to the last time you saw, “he said,” and then work your way back down. Nothing takes you out of the story faster.
As writers, we want our readers to lose themselves in the story, not the dialogue.
Some writers avoid this trap by using the he said/she said attribution, known as a dialogue tag, every single time. That gets tiresome for the reader as well as the writer. So some writers fall into the seductive trap of either adding adverbs (he said warily, she said sarcastically) or using a substitute word called a “said-bookism.” These can be subtle (he explained, she replied) or a glaring distraction (he chuckled, she peeped). Why is it a distraction? Try it right now. Say something while chuckling or peeping at the same time. It’s not natural. It’s not how real people talk. And if you try that in real life, people will start avoiding you.
The beauty of the word “said” is that it provides a signpost so people don’t get lost, but it blends seamlessly into the background of the story. It’s a word we don’t pay attention to; our eyes skim over it, subconsciously noting the signpost but staying within the world of the story. Isn’t that what we as writers want for our readers?
That doesn’t mean the writer should never use an adverb tag. A well-placed adverb is like a pinch of salt. Too much ruins the dish. But the right amount adds flavor and makes the dish memorable. At times, a subtle said-bookism may be a better choice than an adverb, e.g., she whispered vs. she said softly. Remember, as a writer, you want your readers to come away remembering your story, your characters, your dialogue—in other words, the heart of your book—rather than someone chuckling, peeping, exclaiming, shrieking, growling, hissing and chortling.
Said-bookisms and adverb tags are unnecessary to strong writing. A reader should not have to be told that a biting remark is sarcastic. And in fact, why are we “telling” at all? Show don’t tell. If the reader can’t tell from the situation, then you haven’t done your job as a writer. As Rob Hart with LitReactor wrote, “Dialogue tags are a crutch. They’re a distraction from what you should really be doing: Conveying things through actions, word choice and mannerisms” (https://litreactor.com/columns/on-dialogue-tags-why-anything-besides-said-and-asked-is-lazy-writing — read the article; you’ll enjoy it).
By the way, not everyone agrees with this. There is an entire movement called “Said Is Dead,” which offers scores of words to use instead of the dreaded said. We’ve all done it at times. It seems more literary. But to paraphrase William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, keep it simple, stupid.
So what do you need to do? Read over your current piece of writing. Read it out loud. Read it the way you wrote it, with every bellow, chuckle, and growl added in. Does it sound like dialogue sounds in real life? Probably not. Take out the adverbs and said-bookisms. Use he said/she said as signposts in longer pieces of dialogue. How does it read now? Does it sound more natural? If you find places where you feel you have to have an adverb, consider rewriting the dialogue or the narrative beats surrounding the dialogue to show rather than tell.
Revise your writing. Make it strong.