Monday, September 15, 2014

He said. She said.

At the NAWG Festival of Writing last month I attended a couple of workshops led by the crime writer Veronica Heley. ( In one of her workshops she explained how to avoid that particular dilemma fiction writers find themselves in, when writing dialogue … how to tag the conversation.

The most common tag is said:

“I love you!” he said.

After using a few saids writers are often tempted to raid the thesaurus and use a different verb …

“I love you!” he exclaimed.

The temptation here, though, is to use every alternative verb in your dictionary, which then becomes hard work for the reader and often involves using the wrong word for the emotion you’re trying to convey to the reader. So, to avoid this, writers then turn to adverbs to augment said

“I love you!” he said, gushingly.

But they should be used carefully. Veronica suggested a common editing trick is to delete adverbs when used in a dialogue tag (and by this she was referring to adverbs ending in -ly). While the use of numerous adverbs in dialogue tags may be seen as out of fashion at the moment, that doesn't mean obliterating them will improve your text. There are many other adverbs (including those that don't end in -ly) that are important to our text. Like any other word we use in our writing, when used correctly, adverbs have an important role to play.

Veronica continued by saying that if you have a conversation taking place between two characters, you can use the said tags for the first time each character speaks, but after that, as long as the conversation is short, most readers can keep track of who said what, allowing you to drop the tag completely:

“I love you!” he said.
“Oh?” she replied.
“Don’t you love me?”
“I’m … I’m not sure.”
“Ah. I see. I thought … I thought we had something between us.”
“Not from where I’m standing we don’t.”

Tags were only used for the first two lines, and after that it was possible to keep track of who was speaking.

However, the technique that Veronica said writers should consider is the beat. Used well, it helps to give writing a rhythm, which the said tags often destroy. A beat is where you attribute some sort of action to the dialogue, instead of a dialogue tag, like so:

Charles dropped to one knee and took Susan’s hand. “I love you!”

You don’t need he said at the end of this, because the reader knows that it is Charles saying them. The dialogue falls naturally after the action. Alternatively, you can put the action after the dialogue:

I love you!” Charles took Susan’s hand and kissed it.

This technique of attributing some action to the dialogue can be useful in clarifying to the reader who is speaking, when you have more than two people taking part in the conversation. It also helps to convey some of the emotion behind the dialogue as well. When you think about it, most people augment their speech with body language, and this can be quite revealing, so using this action to enhance the dialogue makes sense. And it avoids having to use said quite so often.

Look at how other writers use this technique when you’re next reading fiction. 

Good luck.