“Dialogue with Me,” He spouted

Dialogue with meOne night over gruel the minions were kicking around possible subjects we could write about and someone suggested a post on dialogue. (I don’t remember who as I was busy knocking gruel thief Rich Meyer’s spoon away from my bowl. How I still manage to gain weight around here, I have no idea.) Anyway, I said that I couldn’t do a post on how to write dialogue. The amount I’ve written is roughly equivalent to the number of words in the lyrics to Tequila. But I thought I was more than capable of writing a post on how not to write dialogue. Or at least one telling you about some of the problems I’ve seen made in the indie books I’ve read. Here are three to look out for in the dialogue you write.

He said, She said

The goal is for the reader to be immersed in your story, to feel like he or she is observing the scenes unfold and listening to the conversation in real life. (Make that a peeping Tom for the sex scenes.) Guideposts are sometimes needed so the reader can keep track of who is talking. But inserting anything in dialogue beyond what is needed for that purpose runs the risk of throwing the reader out of the story.

One of the most common ways to indicate who is talking is using a dialogue tag like these examples:

  • “You can’t make me,” she said.
  • “Are you sure about that?” he asked.
  • “Just leave me alone,” Stephen shouted.

Simple enough, right? The part not in quotes telling you which character was speaking is the dialogue tag. What I’ll sometimes see (and if I notice it, you’ve thrown me out of the story) is using a dialogue tag to impart information to the reader that is better shown in some other way.

“Of course you didn’t wake me up,” she yawned while rubbing her eyes.

Don’t do that. Just don’t. First of all, she didn’t yawn those words. Maybe she yawned before or after, but she didn’t yawn the words. And sneaking in the eye rubbing as part of the dialogue tag isn’t clever or creative. It is an excellent way to lose a reader though.

There are ways you can get all of that yawning and eye rubbing in using what are sometimes called beats. Hopefully someone will write a post on how to write dialogue and discuss those. I’m only telling you how not to do it. (I’ve doubled my lifetime output of dialogue in this post already. I can’t tell you how because I don’t know how. Only how not.)

There are those who would say dialogue tags of “he said,” “she said,” or “Character Name Said” are all you should use. As readers we’re trained to see and register the word ‘said’ without actually being conscious of it. Anything else is going to be more obtrusive. I won’t say never use anything else, but it should be rare. Taking that approach will avoid dialogue tag abuse, so throwing away the last two of my three examples above might be a good idea. (I told you I didn’t know how to do this, right?)

You’re right, Kat

If you have two or more characters talking back and forth adding a “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue isn’t going to work either. It’s no wonder some writers want their characters yawning, shouting, and vomiting their words to break the pattern. Not to mention the problem you’ll encounter if both characters in the scene are the same gender. Which he was it who said that last sentence? (Using the character names might help for that last problem.) Part of the answer is by allowing the reader to assume that if only two characters are speaking that they’re taking turns. You don’t have to tell the reader who said every sentence. A dialogue tag here, a beat there and your dialogue will read smoothly with the reader easily able to tell who said what.

Another way you might try to help the reader follow who’s saying what is something like, “You’re right, John, I don’t like that idea.” Obviously this was said by the character who isn’t John. Used sparingly, this might be okay. It depends. How often when you’re talking to someone do you use their name? Most people rarely do. There are exceptions, primarily smarmy types who have been told using someone’s name is a way to “connect” with them. If you’re writing dialogue for a used car salesman, have at it. Otherwise, go easy.

As I’m sure you remember

With the exception of The Bible, I can’t think of any book that starts at the beginning. The characters all have back story that we need to know. Some of the characters may have history with each other that we have to understand. They say (yes, the infamous “they”) that “you can’t dump all of that on the reader at once.” So you take their recommendation of dribbling it out as needed in flashbacks, snippets of internal dialogue (I’m glad no author can access my internal dialogue), and whatever other ways you can find. Heck, if it works for internal dialogue, why not regular (external?) dialogue? Maybe you could try something like this.

“Jack, Do you really think that might work?” Joe said.

“Well, it might. But remember when we tried that before? It was almost the same situation and … ”

I won’t bore you with the rest (that would involve writing more dialogue), but Jack recounts the details. Every. Single. One. He explains exactly what he and Joe did, everything about the situation (being sure to point out what is the same and what isn’t), and last (I hope) why this idea didn’t work last time. Good job. You’ve got your back story on record. But you’ve also lost your reader. You may be able to sneak some back story in using dialogue, but only in small (make that extremely small) doses and never by having one character tell another what they both already know. Even the least discerning reader is going to detect something unnatural about that conversation.

“Enough of this,” I screamed

Now I’ve written enough words of dialogue to match the number of words in the lyrics to a real song. Maybe La Bamba. If nothing else my bad dialogue proves that it takes practice to get good at something. If my accumulated dialogue ever reaches Alice’s Restaurant length, I’ll be back with what else I’ve learned not to do.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

49 thoughts on ““Dialogue with Me,” He spouted”

  1. Good things to watch out for. Like most ‘rules’ for writing, though, it is important to remember that most of them can be broken in positively effective ways. I think I have done so with many of these (not yawning – I think). But you are correct that over-reliance on any one of these examples will make our dialogue stilted and artificial – and annoying.

    1. You’re right, Yvonne. If I’ve learned only one thing about writing (a good possibility) it is that their are no unbreakable rules, only rules of thumb. I like the old cliche that says you shouldn’t break a rule until you understand it well enough to know you’re breaking a “rule” and know why.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Even though “they say” to only use the silent said, so many stories I critique in my writing groups still exhibit attempts of other methods of tagging. I feel preachy when we discuss this, some fellow writers responding with “that’s debatable.” I agree with you that it should be the standard he said, she said the majority of the time. If the story needs to explain she is yawning, then just say – she yawed. Thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Elisabeth. I understand the temptation. I’m sure using other dialogue tags feels like a clever way to impart additional information about the emotions and mindset of a character and doesn’t feel like telling instead of showing even thought it is just a slightly more subtle way of doing it.

      1. Using your example, Al (“Of course you didn’t wake me up,” she yawned while rubbing her eyes), here’s a really simple way to fix it:

        “Of course you didn’t wake me up.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes.

        A comma to a period and then the subsequent capital letter for a new sentence. The reader still knows she’s the speaker, as it’s still on the same line, and the writer manages to get across the humour of the slight contradiction.

  3. For a guy who can’t write dialogue, you’ve done a nice job of summing up the common pitfalls. Thanks, Al.

    The name tag thing bothers me a lot, when I run across it. There are only two people in the room, for goodness sake — they’re not going to keep calling each other by name in conversation.

    1. Thanks, Lynne. It’s like a lot of things with writing, I can spot it in someone else’s as an issue. Doing it right myself is another story. 🙂

  4. In “On Writing,” Stephen King suggests “said/says” as the attribution to use almost exclusively.And do not add adverbs with that because it is telling instead of showing. He has a point.

    In my current novel, I use says or asks almost exclusively, and no adverbs in dialog attribution. Rather I show actions at times with the attribution. For example, have the person talking while pacing the room–that show the mood.

    Also, my protagonists has certain distinctive speech patterns that the reader will recognize after a few pages; so, I can avoid attribution in some two-way conversations.

  5. Excellent job, Al. I think you’re ready to write lyrics to longer songs now. Stairway to Heaven, maybe? And you’ve pointed out some great examples. To add to what Lynne commented on, when people talk to each other in real life, unless they’re in sales or have some other predilection to do so, they don’t often use the name of the person they’re speaking with. Yes, once in a while, it’s good to toss a name in there, like you said. But I have seen some where it’s used in every single line. And aerobic dialogue tags really irritate me after a while: “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Oh, honey, it wasn’t your fault,” she consoled. “I agree with you,” he agreed….

    1. You’re right, Laurie. I especially laughed at you “I’m sorry,” he apologized example. That line raises three red flags for me. Showing, not telling. The “clever” dialogue tag (which is a special case of showing, not telling, although I don’t always think it through that far), and last repetitiveness, a big pet peeve of mine.It’s a simple example of an author doing something right (with the “I’m sorry” part) which communicates what they want and then what I perceive as not having faith in their writing, so adding the tag “just to make sure.”

  6. My pet hate: (yawning), smiling, laughing, groaning sentences. Readers tend not to notice ‘said’. Authors shouldn’t be afraid to use it. Great post, Al…as usual. 🙂

  7. Good points, Al. One thing I’m very aware of with dialog is timing; if the characters are talking at a slow or moderate speed, discussing something thoughtfully, I will use more tags. If they are doing more rapid-fire back-and-forth, I will omit the tags to speed up the pace of the dialog. Lots of things to consider with dialog, but most important is making it natural. If you don’t talk like you write, maybe you should write like you talk. Thanks, Al.

  8. I could go on and on…it’s a great post with some great points. I don’t necessarily agree with King’s said/says, which incidentally he flat out stole from Hemingway, but here’s thing: Part of the reason many authors find dialogue so flipping difficult is because they’re trying to write dialogue that doesn’t take the story forward!!! First and most essential” What are you trying to accomplish with your dialogue? Once you know that, it gets easier 🙂

    1. Thanks, Teresa.I’m curious about your disagreement on he/she said. Do you think break that “rule” some of the time is okay or that it can be ignored completely? I’d agree with breaking it some of the time. Using another tag in a rare situation would emphasize that something was different. That might serve a specific purpose.

    2. I don’t think it’s stealing when someone agrees with another author. Elmore Leonard also included it as number 4 of his ten rules for writing:

      “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”

      Not stealing, emphasizing! 🙂

      1. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb. As a writing teacher of mine once said, “Occasionally, you can ask.” Too many variations get a little distracting, in my opinion.

  9. A great post which certainly highlights important points. I have to take issue with you over the yawning bit, however. I regularly yawn, whist trying to speak and simultaneously rubbing my eyes. I do this every morning when my wife wakes me up too early to tell me there’s a cup of cold tea waiting to be drunk. The tea is cold not because I like it that way, but because she’s been downstairs for half an hour after making it, distracted by something in yesterday’s newspaper, and forgot to bring it up while it was still hot. Se’s drunk her own cup, however.
    So yawning, rubbing your eyes and talking at the same time are entirely feasible!

  10. My poor bloke belches when his stomach is upset. It embarrasses him. But he’s the only person I know who’s capable of belching in English.

    This could be literal in his case:
    “I don’t feel like food tonight,” he belched.

  11. For an alleged non-writer, this is an excellent post. When I first started writing (ten years ago), I got some books on how to write books, and concentrated on what they all agreed on in fiction. One of those things is that “said” as a dialogue tag is invisible to the average reader.
    Great post, Al.

  12. Thanks, Al.

    “Not to mention the problem you’ll encounter if both characters in the scene are the same gender.”

    Has anyone else changed the gender of a minor character to avoid the above problem? I have.

    I avoid using “said” and “asked”, preferring beats instead. If it’s a well-written conversation that refers to a predicament already introduced, beats can often be dropped. And as smclaugh1 said, distinctive speech patterns also make beats and dialogue tags less important.

  13. I agree with Chris, Al! For someone who claims they don’t write, you sure brought up some great tips. 🙂
    An editor friend of mine, David Antrobus (maybe you’ve heard of him? LOL), recommended an excellent book to me and Al, every point you made in this post was also suggested in it. The book is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

    I think it is time to move on to a longer song!

    1. Thanks, Nicole. I’m vaguely familiar with that name. 🙂

      To be completely honest, I think I read that book around the same time I was writing this post. I’d conceived of much of the post, but I’m sure some of what the book said helped me refine what I said here.

      1. Ha ha, my ears must have been burning! 🙂

        That book is wondrousness. If it were a woman, I would wine and dine it and do the gentlemanly thing and not even kiss it on the first date (however much I might want to).

          1. Oddly enough, it wasn’t! I get those email updates and of all the headers yours got my attention the most (I literally don’t have time to read every article here, as much as I’d like to).

    2. That’s one of the books I use! I’ve got the 2001 edition. Terrific little book, that one 🙂

  14. Gee whiz! You guys get up early to post comments. I’m always at the tag end. At least I get to read all of the comments and learn things. Last year I was in some Skype meetings and the editors were sneering at using he/she said. I don’t get it. Use the dialogue tag that works for character/scene/story/emotion. Would this work?
    Jenny looked askance at the overbearing, under-muscled jock, Charlie Futz. “What the heck do you mean, I’m overweight, you jerk? Three ounces is not overweight.”
    “Yeah, but those three ounces are under your chin and there’s a hair growing out of it.”
    “Oh, ha, ha. And where do you keep your extra three ounces? In your change purse? ‘Cause they sure ain’t behind your zipper.”

    Jackie Weger

    1. Jackie, did you just call me fat? 🙂

      I’m no expert on beats (that’s why I can’t tell you how to write dialogue), but I think what you did there isn’t technically a tag, but a beat. If I remember correctly, a beat is (someone correct me if I get this wrong) describing a physical action before or after a piece of dialogue to show who is saying something without using a tag, like “he said.”

      1. You got it, Al! “Beats” are all those small gestures around the dialogue that break up the conversation, show where the pauses and reactions might be. Otherwise, long stretches of dialogue could be confusing as to who is saying what. Not to mention, a little dull.

  15. Great post! I write a children’s book series with 5 young girls as the characters. They are always together, and always talking, as one would expect young girls to do. The “said” battle is one that I constantly fight because these girls just don’t know when to be quiet. But, this post should help me find a way to drop some of the tags. Thank you.

  16. Great post, Al. I recognize tags and beats when I read them, but until now I didn’t know what they were called. I use a lot of beats in my first draft, then slowly whittle them away in subsequent edits because too much is just as bad as too little.

    1. Thanks, AC. I *think* (If I’m getting things right) that what David did above with my yawning example is turned a questionable tag into a beat that accomplished the same thing without implying something physically difficult.

  17. I disagree with the rule of not using dialogue tags. action tags are in my opinion less intrusive to the story as long as they are used correctly. you don’t want to create an action just to tag a dialogue. the quotes themselves imply the action of speaking. In real life we do many things while we speak and using action tags and paragraph breaks when the action or dialogue change from one character to another helps the story move faster. less words to read….without a laundry list of saids…not that don’t use said. It depends on the scene and what is needed to eliminate confusion.

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