He said, she said: Dialogue Dilemma

This week I attended a local writer's group meeting. I was given the opportunity to read a small portion of one of my works in progress. By read, I mean read out loud. Things sound different when one reads them out loud.

One thing I noticed while I was reading my own work was an issue with dialogue and the use of dialogue tags. Of course, this led to some research and this is what I found:

KEEP IT SIMPLE ... uh, I'll let you figure the last word out.

The most effective dialogue tag in almost all cases is a simple "said." For example:

"Put that spatula down and step away from the grill," she said.

Occasionally, one might need to put a name in place to distinguish who is doing the talking. Most often though, the name is not necessary as long as the writer firmly seats the readers mind in the scene. Sometimes, nothing at all is necessary.

By way of example, let me use a story most of you are familiar with (guys, you don't have to admit it if you don't want to) by Jane Austen, titled Pride and Prejudice. A couple of things demand my attention about the writer and her style in this story.

First, she used very few actual dialogue tags such as "said" in the story. In fact she wrote nearly entire chapters of dialogue and intelligently placed name anchors withing the context of the dialogue itself so that one always knows who is doing the talking and who is receiving.

On another note, one might notice that, throughout the entire story, Mr. and Mrs Bennet are never given first names. To this day, I could not tell you what their first names were, if they ever had them.

It is a skillful writer who can completely omit dialogue tags and still allow the reader to follow the rhythm and flow of communication. One of my favorite authors, Lee Child, is great at this. In fact, I think that he has just about perfected the "less is more" concept in dialogue. Sometimes his main character, Jack Reacher, doesn't say anything at all. In fact his part of the dialogue is simply and brilliantly written "Reacher said nothing."

Also important is to remember that dialogue should be used to show character traits and drive the story forward. In other words, and I'm especially guilty of this, do not just insert dialogue for the sake of having dialogue.

A great piece of advice that I wish I had originated (I'm just not that smart) is to break up dialogue with action. Have your character do something instead of trying to write down what you are trying to express using overbearing verbs and adverbs.

Sometimes action can even replace dialogue and have the same revealing effect.

I could provide a thousand examples of what not to do and at least two examples of what to do but, in the end, the best way to find the best dialogue is simply to read the passage, or passages aloud.


  1. Excellent advice. Dialogue always sounds different on paper than it does aloud.

    Giggles and Guns

  2. I really love this post. It's really helpful. I agree with the use of the word said and love your look at P&P.


  3. I agree entirely. i try to minimize the use of tags as much as possible, with mixed success. I stopped going to extremes, though, when an interview with a publisher indicated that they didn't necessarily appreciate it as much as us, though it may have been the particular methods of avoidance he didn't like (the example when something like "blah blah." Alice laughed. He insisted it should say, instead: "Blah blah," she said with a laugh. Maybe he objected to the short sentence... We can hope.

    As to reading aloud: it's not only dialog that is helped by the practice. When I started getting novels sorta done, I also started reading them to my sister, usually as a way to pass the time on long drives. Sometimes she read them to me, a different kind of enlightenment, but there is something about reading aloud that also helps catch spelling, punctuation, and other visual errors, as well as repetitive content and dialog issues etc. Definitely a must-do for anything you are going to send in for publication.

  4. It must be awesome to have a local writer's group to meet with! I use a website called ficly.com to get feedback and I've grown so much as a writer by using the site.

    I'm writing down "Read it Aloud" on a posti-it because the concept is so brilliantly simple that we writers forget to do it, cooped up in our little worlds! I may also link to this post in my next blog post..

  5. ElshaHawk

    Thanks for the comment. I would welcome you linking to this post. I only hope that my humble opinions and arguably credible advice can help others as other people's advice has helped me.

  6. Linked! http://moonlitnotesbyelsha.blogspot.com/2010/07/simplest-editing-technique-ever.html

    I know you'll see it, because you followed my blog, but for everyone else who wants to check out my writing, you are welcome to visit!

  7. Brilliant! The time period and relationship of the characters are important to keep in mind when deciding when and how often to stick names into the dialog in lieu of "said" tags. In modern, casual conversation, people really don't use each other's names all that often, whereas in the period Pride & Prejudice takes place it was quite commonplace.


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