He Said, She Said: Grammar and Options in Dialogue image

 

We all have habits, things we do repeatedly and automatically, usually without thinking. We buy the same clothes in the same colors. We order the same dish at a restaurant. We watch the same TV programs.

Writers have habits too. Dedicating time to write each day is a good habit. Reading great works of literature is a good habit. But unthinking overuse of certain words is a bad habit. This lack of creativity often shows up as repetitive “dialogue tags” (verbs that indicate who is speaking)—usually the word “said.”

“A reader’s emotions can be sparked with few words. That’s the power of dialogue.”

—Sol Stein, author, editor, and publisher

Dialogue Attribution

Here are some examples of the most common way to attribute dialogue to a certain character using he said or she said.

“I told you: I don’t want to go,” she said.
“It’s not a choice. We have to go,” he said.
“I don’t care. I’m not going,” she said.
“But it’s my mother’s birthday!” he said.

How to Avoid Repeating He Said / She Said

So what should you do when your dialogue attribution becomes too repetitive?

One option is to substitute a different verb, preferably one that communicates action or emotion at the same time.

“I told you: I don’t want to go,” she pouted.
“It’s not a choice. We have to go,” he replied.
She crossed her arms. “I don’t care. I’m not going.”
“But it’s my mother’s birthday!” he shouted.

An infographic by Grammar Check lists 222 words that can be used instead of “said.” Just Publishing Advice goes even farther and recommends 350 alternatives. Apps like Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid can also suggest synonyms and provide alternative words, as can a site like Thesaurus.com.

But just because you have options, does that mean should you exercise them?

Simple Dialogue Tags

dialogue image

Interestingly, there’s another school of thought that says mindless variation is completely unnecessary. Proponents of this style—Stephen King is a famous example—argue that quotidian verbs like “said,” “asked,” and “ replied” are the only dialogue tags necessary. “Said” is invisible, they insist; anything else is distracting at best, clunky and awkward at worst. These contrived verbs even have a name: “said bookisms.”

“I told you: I don’t want to go,” she pouted.
“It’s not a choice. We have to go,” he growled.
“I don’t care. I’m not going,” she glowered.
“But it’s my mother’s birthday!” he exploded.

Hmmm. Given Stephen King’s place in the pantheon of American authors, we are willing to concede that he and the other purists may have a point here. When applied purely to avoid repetition, said bookisms can be hyperbolic and distracting. Furthermore, they violate a cardinal rule of good writing: Show, don’t tell.

So what’s a writer to do?

One option is to keep dialogue tags to minimum. After the speakers have been identified, attribution is rarely necessary. The dialogue itself can also indicate action and emotion.

“I told you: I don’t want to go,” she pouted.
“It’s not a choice. We have to go,” he replied firmly.
She crossed her arms. “I don’t care. I’m not going.”
“But it’s my mother’s birthday!”
“You’ll just have to explain the situation.”
“Explain that you’d rather stay home with a new puppy than go to her party?”
“Whatever you want to tell her is fine with me.”
“Don’t walk away from me! Get back here!”

Advice for Writing Better Dialogue

Here’s the bottom line: Good writers know how to describe action and emotion without raiding the thesaurus for ill-fitting substitutes. Deftly crafted dialogue tags and speaker attributions add subtle emotional cues that help develop character and move the action forward. Stolid repetition of “said” curtails at least some of your chance to communicate these important elements.

Want to get out of the “he said, she said” rut? Learn more about dialogue here and here and explore said bookisms here and here.

Check out our detailed post on how to write better dialogue tags for more information.

 

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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.