Writing Dialogue: Lose the Said?

Read Cat loves good dialogue.

Reader Cat loves good dialogue.

I’ve been editing a student manuscript. This particular writer is getting a bit confused over attributions–those little “dialogue tags” which help readers know who is speaking. And in the writing world at large, the debate over these tags rages on.

Writing Tip for Today: Is it still OK to add a “said” here and there in a scene, or should all attributions be replaced with action, emotional or scenic beats (sentences)? Here are some things to consider:

What’s the Big Deal, Anyway?

This whole “no attribution” movement seems to stem from readers’ increasing need for minimalism. Where once you might write, “I just can’t stand it!he said. He threw my manuscript across the room. Now it seems more streamlined to simply omit the “said” and place the “He threw the manuscript” bit next to the spoken words. Doing so does not create confusion (we still know who’s speaking) and you get more bang for the buck. Instead of only knowing who says what, we also get an action paired with the words as well as the character’s emotional intensity. To modern readers, the “he said” might be a few extra words too many.

Go with the Flow

A well-placed “beat” of action, emotion or thought does give us much more of a complete experience. But I for one caution writers not to take this “beat” thing too far. Consider how the scene flows–that is, how the pacing feels. A beat around each line of dialogue is going to feel sing-song after a while. Mix it up: Place your beats in different spots in the dialogue: before, after, in-between. And vary what type of beats you employ. Show an action where action is important, and favor the thoughts or emotions where this information is clearly called for. By fine-tuning your use of these “beats,” you will help create a pleasing pace or flow.

Said Won’t Kill You

In scenes where you need your dialogue to heat up or to be fast-paced, using the occasional “said” is not going to mean death for your story. Be judicial, and do avoid silly attributions: replied, exclaimed, pontificated, ejaculated. The addition of “said” as your primary attribution is wise, but readers won’t throw the book at you if you insert asked, shouted or the like every now and then. Just be sure to ask yourself whether an attribution or a beat will give readers the most complete reading experience.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing Dialogue: Lose the Said?

  1. Good post, Linda. I think changing “he said, she said” to a beat or more action is a
    better idea. It’s hard to get others to see this because we’ve been used to the classics
    that use the old method. I’m constantly aware of it when working with a critique partner
    or in my own writing. Excellent post. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Diane,
      I agree that most of the time it’s more “scenic” or cinematic to add something that expands the reader’s vision (the fictional dream), but once in a while a said or no attribution at all works too. Thanks for your comment! Keep writing! ~Linda

  2. I agree 100% Linda, thanks for bringing this out. I can’t tell you the times I’ve been slammed because I rejected or frowned at a tagline. Some writers still cling to the old ways. And yes, they’re times we need an old , “She said,” but they should be few and far between.

    • Mary,
      It’s true: One cannot, smile, frown, grin or sigh words, although we have been known to snarl and sneer. Keep those action beats coming! Keep writing,

    • Thank you Mary. I think the words you list above must feel pretty unloved these days. ๐Ÿ™‚ Keep Writing! ~Linda

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