The Said, Said Story

I use “said” too often when writing dialog. Or I don’t. There is a bit of conflict on this subject. The factions at war over this issue have strong opinions. Not wanting to be a middle of the road kind of guy, I will state up front that I think they are all wrong. Before we argue, I will use the same dialog and try to illustrate each of the methods advised.

Case 1 – He said, She said.

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

Dick said, “No, thank you.”

Jane said, “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot said, “Woof.”

Dick said, “I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane said, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick said, “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot said, “Woof.”

He Said, She Said, is clearly simple, but bad. It is repetitious. Having the word “said” at the front of every sentence is a bit sing song and irritating. The proponents of it will tell you that the word “said” will just disappear when read. This sadly is only half true, and not true with a lot of readers. In any case, it is repetitious and banal.

Case 2 – Purple Prose

Dick smiles and gestured to a seat as he and Jane sat at the table. as Spot eyed them both carefully as he poured them tea.

Spot gently said, “Woof.”

Dick said with a commanding voice, “No, thank you.”

Jane happily said, “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot obediently said, “Woof.”

Dick sounded conceited as he said, “I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane frowned as she said, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick scoffed and said, “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot said with a gleam in his eyes, “Woof.”

Purple Prose, is a bit richer, but it is too much richer. The lovers of purple prose will heap it on at every opportunity. The haters say never ever use any of it. Putting it on a particular character can be humorous or it could underscore the storytellers feeling towards the character. For example, If I tell a story and every time I mention a fellow, I say that he does something clumsily or elegantly, while leaving all such embellishments out on the rest of the characters, I may be revealing something about my own feelings.

Case 3 – Indicative Action

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot finished pouring Dick’s tea, “Woof.”

Dick put his hand over his cup. “No, thank you.”

Jane gestured. “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into Jane’s tea. “Woof.”

Dick leaned towards Jane.“I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane frowned, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick leaned back confidently. “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot backed up out of reach of Dick and Jane. “Woof.”

Indicative Action works, but it is too busy. The constant action in a scene without dramatic action distracts from the simple conversation. When it makes sense to use it, it is a delight. The writers that make up action to make it work are often adding motions that distract from instead of building a scene. If the man with an axe keeps sharpening it as he talks, it can add to the mood or emphasize a quirk. If a man just sharpens an axe to give him an action, so the writer can avoid the word “said,” it can easily distract and ruin the scene.

There are other issues with Indicative Action. As an example I give you the following line:

“I often say things unrelated to what I am doing.” Jim picks up the dog, “What are you doing with all of these dogs?”

The horrible line above works as a written line. Out loud, you will need to use the cranky voice for Jim or no one will know if he said the first part, second part or both parts.

Case 4 – Minimalist

Dick and Jane sat at Dick’s table as Spot poured them tea.

“Woof.”

“No, thank you.”

“Two lumps, no cream.”

“Woof.”

“I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

“I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

“Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

“Woof.”

Minimalist is okay if we don’t really need to know who said what. It is fast and simple. It can slow the reading down as the reader tries to figure out who said what. It is okay for a bit, but when read out loud, it often becomes even worse. The example isn’t good even though a reader can figure out most of the meaningful parts in the exchange above.

Case 5 – Variation

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

Dick answered, “No, thank you.”

Jane replied, “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot barked, “Woof.”

Dick announced, “I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane responded, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick proclaimed, “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot muttered, “Woof.”

Variation mostly works, but it starts to get silly towards the end. As you use more rare or archaic words, it becomes laughable. There are places where it can be good for a laugh. Sometimes prose can be made into poetry by using something other than the basic “said.”

Case 6 – Translocation

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

“No, thank you,” Dick said.

“Two lumps,” Jane said, “no cream.”

Spot said, “Woof.”

“I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray,” Dick said.

“I don’t think it worked,” Jane said. “If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

“Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life,” Dick said.

Spot said, “Woof.”

Translocation is a great way to avoid sing-song prose. It is also a great way to add confusion.

If you don’t put the “he said,” at the front of the sentence, you may introduce confusion when your work is read out loud. In the example above, there is a part that could lead to confusion when read out loud. Out loud, without using voices, Dick or Jane could have said the words, “Would he be serving you tea right now?” or “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble.” The audience has no good way to know. When the indication is at the end of a sentence, it also means the reader has to get to the end before knowing what internal voice to place on the words. This can interrupt flow.

Case 7 – Naming Names

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

“No, thank you, Spot. How about you, Jane?”

“Two lumps, Spot. No cream.”

“Woof.”

“Jane, I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

“I don’t think it worked, Dick. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

“Jane, Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

“Woof.”

Naming Names is obviously overused here. It is a good method, but it should flow naturally and it should only be used as an artifice when there are no other good options for indicating who said what. There are charismatic people who use your name constantly, so it can be used as a character trait for a particular character. This method will blow up quickly if you use it for a character in every story you write, so pick the book you are putting it in carefully.

 

What to Do

My own opinion is that a writer should use all of the above methods. By including them all in your box of tricks, you allow yourself the most options. Writing is expression, rules that say, “Never,” are limits to expression. Rules can help you communicate. Rules can help you to avoid pitfalls. Rules are, however, blind limits. They don’t create. If the rules were being followed, rock and roll would not exist.

To help with the above methods, here is a simple and fairly terse guide. If you can figure it out, use it. Otherwise, just do the best you can.

If one character says more than one sentence, the next character’s indication must be at the beginning of the line. Otherwise, confusion can result especially if your work is read out loud.

Position of “said” should alternate between front and middle. If a phrase is short, then the end is acceptable. If a dialog has more than one sentence, the next “said” must be at the front.

Action to indicate speech is really good, but only if appropriate.

Asking questions makes for better conversation. The word “ask” breaks the “I say, he says,” pattern all by itself. It also allows the word “answer” to be used.

Prose must flow. Unless the moment calls for a type of discord or audience internal response, it must not kick the reader out of the reading trance.

Short List of Acceptable Words

Intersperse these as indications of speech:

say, says, ask, asks, answer, reply, respond, tell, call, shout.

Use these a bit less often:

clear my throat, chuckle and say, laugh and say.

Some will take issue if you just use the word chuckle or laugh as an indication of speech. I figure that this means I laugh before responding, but it is best to avoid giving pedantic people too much ammunition. This is a recent enough rule, but the pedantic are correct that these may be over used. “Jim laughs and says,” is less likely to draw criticism than “Jim Laughs,” I think they mean the same thing, but it could be taken as Jim laughing as he talks. In my youth I used to swallow air and burp out complete sentences, so “Bob burped,” could be a true indication of speech. While this is not used much, I think it could be overused pretty quickly.

 

As a final note, the end of this scene writes itself:

Dick and Jane gasp and keel over. Spot picks up the intelligence ray and goes out through the dog door. Man’s final battle is about to begin.

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