He Said. She Said.

 

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

Another good reason to use “said” is as a break from descriptive and action tags, adding variety and rhythm to your prose. Also consider that each phrase a character utters can’t realistically be accompanied by an action. Think about it. When you are carrying on a conversation, do you make a movement before or after each thought? Does your conversational partner? Action tags are used as descriptors, to further character development, and to enhance the story. But “said” can be an effective way to keep your story moving.

When in doubt, read your words aloud and listen to the rhythm. Hearing your story will help you learn when “said” is your best friend.

[image above clipped from the cover of Jay & Laura Laffoon’s book He Said. She Said.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Responses to He Said. She Said.

  1. Avatar
    Rick Barry September 1, 2011 at 4:31 am #

    Tamela, so very glad to see you explain that “simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words.”

    Back when I worked as an editor, manuscripts often described characters as smiling out a sentence, whistling it, beaming words, or using other equally unlikely verbs to convey speaking. Logically, though, the only way a characters could smile or whistle words back and forth would be through a creative use of Morse code, which conjures up laughable imagery. As you explain, such verbs are fine when the punctuation separates them from the act of speaking. But when a verb is needed, good old “said” does the job just fine and remains in the background, without drawing undue attention to itself.

    • Avatar
      TC Avey September 1, 2011 at 4:49 am #

      Thank you both for the advice on punctuation, it is an area I continually work on improving. Been a long time since I’ve had an English class!

  2. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray September 1, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    Rick, your Morse code comment made me smile. Thanks for a great way to begin the day. And TC, I always enjoyed English class. Can you tell?

    • Avatar
      TC Avey September 1, 2011 at 6:00 am #

      Yes, I did too, it’s just been too long ago! Thanks for the refresher on how something as small as punctuation can make such a huge impact on how something is read and interpreted!

  3. Avatar
    Judith Robl September 1, 2011 at 5:59 am #

    Love this post. Much akin to the class I took under Alton Gansky when he declared that “was” is a perfectly good word. Not everything is a cataclysmic action.

    Sometimes good writing is just good common sense. We needn’t get too self-important with our “author”-icity. (I love coining words.)

  4. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan September 1, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    My English teacher high school provided a list of 50 alternate words for “said.” She encouraged her charges to use them and avoid “said,” which was boring and unsophisticated.

    Using these words would “add color and drama” to your writing, she promised.

  5. Avatar
    Martha Rogers September 1, 2011 at 7:00 am #

    Rick, I loved the reference to Morse Code and whistling. I immediately pictured two boys using whistling to communicate with one another. My son and his friend drove people crazy with their secret code of sounds, especially when they did it under their breaths in class.

    As an English teacher, I appreciated the comments about the punctuation. Oh what difference he placement of a comma or a period can make in what is written and the intended meaning.

  6. Avatar
    Martha Rogers September 1, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    Duh, the font was so small I didn’t notice the typo. I meant “the placement” and “he placement.”

  7. Avatar
    Beth Ziarnik September 1, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    Hi Tamela,

    Congratulations on your new position with Steve Laube’s agency!

    Good post on the “He Said, She Said” particulars. I especially appreciated your insight on using “said” as a break from the descriptive action tags since I tend to lean heavily toward using those tags.

    Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    Gina Welborn September 1, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    Oh, Tamela, I really ought to link this post on the non-inspy contest entry I judged yesterday. Only I can’t because I already returned it to the contest coordinator.

    1) using “he said” at the end of a long paragraph of dialogue and not including any action beats before or inside dialogue

    2) using action beats as dialogue tags (such as “he frowned” — how do you frown words?)

    3) using “he said” in a string of exchanges, thus the almost-invisible-to-the-reader-dialogue tag because a chorus of “he said, she said, he said, she answered, he answered, she said.”

    4) not punctuating the dialogue tag or action beat correctly (“Hi.” He said.) or (“You don’t like it,” he frowned.)

    WHile I was filling out the scoresheet, I came across a thought-provoking post about dialogue tags by Gail Martin.
    http://writingright-martin.blogspot.com/2011/07/cutting-dialogue-tags.html

    I’m not too sure I’m on the Cut-All-Tags bandwagon because I think like any literary tool, dialogue tags are useful. However, as I’m editing a manuscript, I’ve already removed a handful of tags from the first couple chapters. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Marji Laine September 1, 2011 at 8:07 am #

    This is such refreshing news! I’d been instructed to remove all tags and only use action beats, but like you said, there isn’t always action going on. I love being able to use this tool again!

  10. Avatar
    Caroline Friday September 1, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Tamela,

    Thanks for your informative blog entries. I’m learning so much from my agent!

    Be blessed,

    Caroline

  11. Avatar
    Janet McHenry September 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    Thanks, Tamela! Well said. 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Martha Ramirez September 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Great post, Tamela!

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