That’s what she said…

Writer friends, let’s talk dialogue, shall we. This week, I am meandering my way through Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and the section on writing dialogue has my attention. According to the book, “Your best bet is to use the verb said almost without exception… To use verbs like the last three [grimaced, smiled, chuckled] is to brand yourself as an amateur– and stick your character with an action that is physically impossible.”

Now, I have to say, even though dialogue writing is tricky and I am still learning, I am not entirely sure I agree. Overall, I try to stick to said or use beats that describe the character’s actions to show who is talking:

“I’m just afraid I’ll let you down,” Kristen leaned over and put her head on his lap, letting her tears spill onto his favorite pair of old Adidas running shorts.

The description of what Kristen does tells us she is the one speaking with a beat according to the authors. They would theoretically agree with this speaker attribution. However, there are times that speaker tags like smiled or laughed add something to the text. To me, they don’t mean the speaker held these expressions the entire time they were speaking, like the book claims to be physically impossible, but instead that these actions followed the dialogue:

“Me?” Kristen laughed softly, “You’re the unhappy one!”

As a reader, can’t we infer that she was not laughing the entire time the words were spoken, but instead at the point in between? I feel like maybe I am missing something about dialogue here that the authors of this book see and I don’t. I get what they’re saying about not overdoing it with unnecessary verbs/adjectives/adverbs, but variety does not seem like such a bad thing, especially when it gives information to the reader.

Ironically, I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would agree with me. The Great Gatsby, which this book holds in high esteem for its character development and scene creation, uses tags like told, laughed, cried, remarked all within the first few pages. So, now I’m curious of your thoughts– how do you most often distinguish who is talking in your dialogue? Do you frequently use verbs other than said? Do you feel they serve a purpose or that said is the better choice?

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13 thoughts on “That’s what she said…

  1. bwtaylor75 says:

    I’ll offer my two cents, for what they are worth. Let’s look at your first example sentence. “I’m just afraid I’ll let you down,” Kristen leaned over and put her head on his lap, letting her tears spill onto his favorite pair of old Adidas running shorts.

    We have someone talking but the way this is written they aren’t really talking at all. Words are spoken and someone has to be saying them. You can do two things here. You can leave the dialogue as a separate sentence and create a new sentence for the action. “I’m just afraid I’ll let you down.” Kristen leaned over and put her head on his lap, her tears spilling onto his favorite running shorts. -OR- you could combine the two. “I’m just afraid I’ll let you down,” Kristen said, resting her head on Jack’s lap. As she spoke, tears soaked through his favorite running shorts. I would probably lose the word ‘just’ from the dialogue too. We don’t need it.

    The original sentence reads oddly because it seems like you tried to jam too much into it. If Kristen is speaking, let her speak. You can still convey emotion either through the way she speaks, the description of her actions, or even the way she interacts with the other characters. Try reading it aloud. How does it sound?

    I think what you’re not seeing is what many new writers miss too. I’ve been guilty of it as well. -EXAMPLE- “I’m glad you’re here,” she smiled. What are you trying to show the reader? Is she speaking, smiling, or both? If someone speaks they aren’t necessarily smiling, they are speaking. But we can add a little something to correct this. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said with a smile. Every reader won’t see things the way you do. Try and be as clear as possible.

    Let’s look at the second example sentence. “Me?” Kristen laughed softly, “You’re the unhappy one!” The second sentence reads like everything is happening at once. Try breaking it up. “Me?” Kristen laughed softly. “You’re the unhappy one!”

    Where we had one long sentence, now we have three. Again, try reading them aloud. The way it originally appears tells the reader she is speaking and laughing all at once by the punctuation. By breaking it up we establish the dialogue, then the laugh, followed by more dialogue. Three separate sentences instead of one continuous one reads much more concisely.

    Check out this video by Algonquin Books executive editor, Chuck Adams. He explains some of the common mistakes he sees in submissions and what will likely lead to a pass. This subject happens to be one of his pet peeves.

    I hope this makes sense. Maybe an editor, or a more experienced writer would be able to explain it better.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      No, it makes good sense, thank you for sharing!

      It’s funny, I was actually beginning to see the difference between commas and periods last night, I think I just needed a little reinforcement. I definitely see how breaking it up makes it clearer.

      What about speaker tags? Do you stick to just said or do you allow yourself the occasional mumbled/grimaced/etc? I like the suggestion for said with a ____.

      I feel like the more I learn about writing, the more I want to go back again and change again, but at the same time, it feels like there is a point where time is better spent by moving on to something new. Do you find yourself going back again and again or carrying what you learned to a new project?

      • bwtaylor75 says:

        Dialogue tags can be used as you see fit. I would recommend you use what the situation calls for. A book with hundreds of ‘said’ tags would be boring. If someone is trying to get a reaction out of someone else, perhaps we could use quipped, or something along those lines. Should we avoid using said, no. Should we exclusively use said, no. You have to discover where that line is for you. Each writer will likely tell you something different. It’s up to you to discover what works best for you and your style of writing.

        As far as going back and learning, we all struggle with different aspects of our writing. The key, at least for me, is to keep learning and push myself to get better. If I believe I can go back and strengthen something, I’ll do it. I want to my best work out there, no regrets. Obviously you can’t keep querying every time you learn something new. Sometimes we have to move on and keep that earlier manuscript for after we’ve been discovered. So to answer your question, I do both.

        Think about it like you would with your students. You teach. They learn. Would you want them to understand why they got something wrong and apply those same lessons for future works? I bet you would. If they don’t understand why they got something wrong, they’ll keep making the same mistakes. Your writing is no different. Apply what you learn to ALL your writing, older works included. If you can make it better by what you learned later, by all means go back and edit. Take those same lessons and incorporate them into current, and future writing too.

        I always tell others to listen to their hearts. If all else fails do that. You’ll be surprised how much your heart knows. Good luck.

      • oliviaobryon says:

        I like that advice. The Self-Editing book tries to say you should only use said or beats, no other tags, which just didn’t seem true for me. So many good writers use verbs other than said. Thanks again for your input, it helps me think through what I’ve read and see it all a little differently. Fortunately, most of my dialogue just needs periods instead of commas, uses said, or does not need a speaker tag, so I don’t feel like it’s a ton to change, I just wonder whether it’s even worth it at this point. Going to spend some time on it tonight then let it go. I’m excited to write something new. 🙂

  2. kingmidget says:

    Using “said” excessively, to me, is boring. You can communicate things with other words. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s better to write three sentences of description of the grimace, instead of just saying “he grimaced.” Sorry, I don’t agree with that. Sometimes, economy of words is better than description diarrhea (sorry about that word choice).

    • oliviaobryon says:

      Yes, it’s all very tricky and contextual, and sometimes it comes out wrong. I also think using said excessively is boring… Still figuring this whole thing out!

      • kingmidget says:

        The other reality is that you don’t have to use any of this unless it’s absolutely necessary. There can be lengthy dialogue without any “said” “exclaimed” or “grimaced as long is it’s clear who the speaker is. That’s why I try to use “said” minimally because I really don’t want to use those kinds of words unless I have to … to identify the speaker or to communicate something about the speaker.

      • oliviaobryon says:

        Agreed. I use a mixture and always like when speaker tags aren’t needed. Just interesting some editors feel so strongly about said as the main verb option.

      • kingmidget says:

        Best reason to self-publish??? Ignore those pesty editors who don’t know anymore about what might sell than you or I. 😉

  3. jeffo says:

    I believe that there’s only one real writing rule: If it works, it works.

    There’s a lot of talk about what too many new writers do, but one of the things new writers do (beside using too many adverbs, or improper dialogue tags) is get hung up on rules. Generally speaking, ‘said’ is number 1 for a tag, but if it doesn’t feel right for a particular piece of conversation, use what does feel right. Sometimes it’s more about rhythm than the tag itself. IF it works, it works.

    Regarding your examples, I do use a lot of actions as ‘beats’, probably too many. In the cases you cited, the action tags should be separated from the dialogue by periods, as bwtalyor75 said, which is how I actually read them. I had to go back and re-read them to see you had commas. It’s either “I’m glad you’re here,” she said with a smile. Or “I’m glad you’re here.” She smiled. Or maybe even: Her smile warmed the room. “I’m glad you’re here.” Ack.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      I like that philosophy, if it works, it works.

      I’ve actually gone back through my manuscript and cleaned up my dialogue a bit, particularly when it comes to commas vs. periods. Irritating to do this after I’ve submitted and shared chunks of my writing with agents, but that’s life I suppose.

      Learning, learning, learning… (And hopefully getting better in the process!) 🙂

      Thanks for your insights.

  4. mysticcooking says:

    I like other tags besides “said.” I feel said is sometimes said too often in a book, and I like being able to see what the characters are doing. However, there are some words that writers use as tags that really don’t seem possible, and that can be a little jarring.

    There was a speaker at a writing conference that I went to that told us that if we build up the scene well enough, and we build up the characters personalit, then tags won’t be necesary.

    • oliviaobryon says:

      Thanks for sharing! I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling like said all the time is boring… 🙂 What writing conference did you go to? I’ve been wanting to check one out but not sure where to start!

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