The “He said” Horrors

Another in my occasional series of blogs to prove that I know everything there is to know about writing.

Some people call them ‘tags’, others ‘identifiers’ – those bits you add after a character’s speech such as ‘he said’, ‘John growled’, ‘she exclaimed’ etc etc. The best advice I can give here is to think of them as gold coins: try to get what you need while spending as few as possible!

It should be possible, especially if there are only two people present in a scene, to get away with quite a bit of unattributed dialogue. If the conversation goes on for a while, you will need to toss in the odd he said/she said to allow the reader to easily keep track of who is speaking, but avoid the temptation to prevent things becoming boring by embellishing all the time.

Over-doing the whole ‘he grumbled’, ‘she complained’ thing is one of the things that will often mark you out to an editor as an inexperienced writer. There are times when a bit of added information will help. ‘Thank you very much’ sounds pretty straightforward – but it might well be said sarcastically, grudgingly or whatever and the reader might not be able to pick up on that without being told. (Although even then it can sometimes still be obvious within the context of the conversation.) Often, though, these additions simply clutter the writing and interrupt the flow of the dialogue and are simply not necessary.

This is especially true of the self-evident ones:

‘I HATE you!’ he said angrily

‘I’m going to kill you,’ he said menacingly

As with many other aspects of writing, and with the proviso that this is coming from an unashamedly minimalistic writer, the bottom line is to examine whether certain words are necessary, whether they add anything useful, and if not leave them out.

About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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2 Responses to The “He said” Horrors

  1. chloefb says:

    That’s really weird… the last thing I did before opening my google reader to find this post at the top of it, was write an e-mail to someone who’s reading my current WIP explaining the difficulty of tagging! In my case, it isn’t conversation and he-saids-she-saids that’s tricky, but the fact that my book is written in multiple first-person viewpoints. Each chapter has to be tagged in the narrative as well as the dialogue. There’s one character I’m really struggling with because she’s been brought up in a really rough area, is working class and is also highly educated after putting herself through university. I’m finding it hard to get her dialect believable and not just middle-class with a few different patterns of speech thrown in. I will try to remember that less is more when I return to edit it!

    (I’m so paranoid about not over-tagging speech with variations on ‘said’, that sometimes now I have to go and put some back in because I’ve edited too harshly!)

  2. Dialect is very tricky in that way. I suppose the more you can ‘think yourself into’ the character the more naturally the way she speaks will come – but easier said than done! I find it helps to base characters on people I know or have met, people who you know well enought to predict the kind of things they say and how generally they react in different situations.

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