That’s What She Said

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There is a book, which I may have mentioned before, called Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. People often have a book which fundamentally influenced the way they write – this is mine, and it’s main impact was on my dialogue. I write a lot of conversation and the trick is always to distinguish who said what and how. There’s two common traps to this, and Messrs Browne and King hugely helped in pointing them out and fixing them.

1. Explaining, and explaining again

“You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.

Fairly normal sentence, right? Except that the ‘in astonishment’ bit is completely irrelevant. You know she’s astonished because of what she said (and, of course, the context of the whole conversation usually). And if her dialogue doesn’t show that she’s astonished, then there’s a more fundamental problem with the sentence.

It also means that you’re missing the chance for a bit of characterisation. There’s a million different ways that people show emotion or reactions – how does your particular individual character do it? If you’re explaining words that are already there, then you aren’t explaining body language that the reader can’t otherwise see.

It’s a difficult habit to break, that one, but it’s worth making the effort.

2. Verbs and adverbs

This one’s more obvious, and more difficult to change. The problem starts with the word ‘said’, which is frequently unpopular. It’s so tempting to find alternatives, which can lead to dialogue that looks like this:

“Give it to me,” she demanded.
“Here it is,” he offered.
“It is loaded?” she enquired.

Which, frankly, sounds ridiculous. But changing them all back to ‘said’ is dull, right? So maybe the answer is to add in adverbs to brighten the conversation up a bit.

“Give it to me,” she said grimly.
“Here it is,” he said calmly.
“Is it loaded?” she said harshly.

Yeah… not really any better. And kind of a repeat of the ‘explaining again’ problem. You need to mix it up – verbs, adverbs and physical descriptions. But, 9 times out of 10, ‘said’ is your verb. It’s up to you to make the dialogue interesting in itself, so that people don’t really notice the attribution part.

Speaking of which, there were a couple of tips there – first, it should always be ‘he said’, not ‘said he’. Unless you’re writing in REALLY high melodrama, in which case knock yourself out. Second, Browne and King strongly recommend that you keep referring to people in the same way throughout the conversation. Mixing ‘Dave said’ and ‘Mr King said’ will just get confusing.

Anyway, I hope that helps. It changed my approach to structuring dialogue pretty much overnight. 

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2 responses »

  1. I found this a really hard habit to break – writing “said” for the tenth time in ten minutes just feels totally wrong. But then I started actually looking at the fiction I was reading. It’s all “he said, she said”, but as long as the dialog is well-crafted, you notice it no more than you do punctuation.

  2. One tip I’ve found useful is that you don’t always need to append “he said” or “she said” to dialogue, as long as it’s clear who’s speaking. What I like to do, to break up the “saids”, is pair action with dialogue, eg: He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

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