Billy said… Diana said…

When I critique and edit writing, there is one common flaw that comes through time and time again. Sometimes, it’s subtle and easily overlooked. But then there are times when it hits you in the face.

I’m talking about he said — she said.

So here’s the deal. You’re writing a scene with dialogue. The characters are talking at such a pace that your writer’s brain is struggling to keep up. But you’re writing that dialogue as fast as you can.

“What’s for dinner?” Billy asked.
“Chicken,” Diana answered.
“But I don’t like chicken,” Billy said.
“Tough, that’s what we’re having,” Diana snarled.

It’s so easy to do. You’re in the rhythm of writing the scene. You don’t have time to stop and think about the nitty-gritty. You just want to write that elusive scene. You’ll worry about the he said — she said when you come to edit. But in the editing phase, I quite often see something like this:

Billy sat at the table for the dinner that Diana cooked.
“What’s for dinner?”
“But I don’t like chicken.”
“Touch, that’s what we’re having.”

Umm… No… This is even worse than the dreaded he said — she said, simply because I have no real clue as to who is talking when. Okay, I can probably put two and two together and work out that Billy is the one asking what is for dinner, but I could be wrong. No, there needs to be some sort of tagging to clarify this. When I mention this to clients, I often see the next revision with something like this:

Billy sat at the table for the dinner that Diana cooked.
“What’s for dinner?” Billy asked.
“Chicken,” Diana answered.
“But I don’t like chicken.”
“Tough, that’s what we’re having,” Diana snarled.

However, the scene is flat. It’s missing something. To put it blunt, it’s missing all the action. I’m unable to build the scene in my mind. I often see large sections of dialogue with little to no tagging at all. While it is avoiding the he said — she said issue, it gives me no context and sometimes I have no idea as to who is talking when.

Billy slumped into the chair. “What’s for dinner?”
“Chicken.” Diana grinned as she placed the carefully carved bird in the center of the table.
“But I don’t like chicken.”
“Touch, that’s what we’re having.”

Okay, it’s not the most brilliant piece of dialogue, but the point is you know right away what the setting is and who the characters are in the scene. And even better, because of the action tags used in the first two lines, there was no need for any tagging at all for the next two. As a reader, you already know who was talking when. And all of this without using a he said.

In any passage of dialogue between two characters, the dreaded he said — she said can easily be avoided.  Use action to help, and it can be simple action. Imagine a coffee shop scene. There’s not much action that is going to happen here, unless a car comes careening off the road and right through the front window. No, here you have two characters talking about the latest movie over a latte.

Billy dumped in a packet of sugar into his cup. “I don’t know how you managed to talk me into going to see that movie.” He grabbed another packet, then another, and another.
“Geez, why don’t you have some coffee with your sugar?” Diana took a sip of her own cup, wincing at the burning sensation on her tongue. “You came because of all the naked girls.”

I’m sure I could carry on for a whole scene, banter between Billy and Diana about the trashy film they saw, but I think you’re starting to see the idea.

There are some that will hear all of this as “don’t use the word said,” so they will mask the problem behind the usage of other dialogue tags.

“Jimmy,” she whispered, “tell me again.”
“Tell you what?” he asked, affection in his voice.
“Please don’t try to be coy,” she breathed in his ear. “You know exactly what I mean.”
He smiled. “I love you,” he cooed.

Not once is the word said actually used, but it still is a he said — she said fest.

I’m not saying that you should never use dialogue tags, the word said is in the dictionary, so it was meant to be used, but when it’s every single line of dialogue… And for those that go the other way and don’t tag at all… Who is talking and when? Like all things, dialogue tagging needs to be handled with moderation. Don’t be afraid to use it, but don’t use it all the time.

But what about those scenes where you have more than one character talking, with dialogue whizzing around the table. In these situations, it is difficult to avoid some sort of tagging, but you can still avoid the he said — she said fest by incorporating action.

Derek stared at the two on the couch. “What the…”
Melissa shot to her feet, unraveling herself from Jimmy’s arms. “I can explain.”
“No need. The engagement’s off.  He can have you.”
“Engagement?” Jimmy looked between Melissa and Derek, horror written across his face.
“Where’s the ring?” Derek demanded. “It belonged to my mother and I want it back.”
Melissa reached down to the jeans on the floor and pulled a gold ring from her pocket. “Can’t we talk about this?”
Derek glanced down the length of her half-naked body, then peered at Jimmy. “There’s nothing to talk about, Mel. It’s over.”

Again, not the best passage ever, but in that passage there was only one explicit dialogue tag, and three people in the scene all talking. Even better, you knew the full context of the story and who is talking when.

There are many views about how to write good dialogue. There will be one theme in common between all of them: use dialogue tags sparingly, but don’t forget to pepper in the action.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Posted in General Advice, Random, Writing and Editing and tagged , , .


    • I’m please to hear that you are finding my comments easy to understand and interesting. Thank you for reading. (If there is any particular topic you’d like to know more about, send me a message and I’ll see what I can do.)

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