Said and other dialog identifiers

One of those rules to know before you break it is only use “said” or “asked” when identifying a speaker of dialog; avoid using words like stammered, complained, etc. For one thing, the dialog should show a stammer or a complaint, so using those is stating the obvious. But mainly, words like that slow down the pace of a story.

As much as I like to have a little variety in my dialog identifiers, I’ve gotta say it’s true that using anything other than “said” slows the pace, which isn’t something you want in a book. For some reason, “said” is so plain that our brains read right over it and thus, keep with the story. A useful thing to know.

But just using “said” and “asked” all the time isn’t good writing either. This is something I’ve known for a while and have adopted in my writing. I know that, for a scene of dialog to flow nicely, it needs to be punctuated with action. But in my current go through of my novel, I noticed that there are a lot more saids than necessary.

Here’s the pattern I seem to have adopted:

“The character says great, stimulating dialog,” said Character, turning to the punch bowl.

Here’s the better way:

“The character says great, stimulating dialog.” Character turned to the punch bowl.

We can identify that Character said the dialog because his name comes right after it. And we’ve eliminated the nasty -ing word that’s too passive.

We’ve also kept action in the scene to make it more interesting.

So, when you’re doing your revisions, look for all the places you have “said” or “asked,” and see if there’s a better way to identify the speaker. Turn your identifiers into action, and pump up your dialog scenes with all the shuffling, staring, shifting, hand-twisting, sniffing, nudging, etc., that goes on in conversations.

What errors do you find in your manuscript revisions?

Write On!

4 Responses

  1. Linda says:

    I also find too many saids which could be eliminated. And I find unnecessary uses of the word that, as in: Yesterday was the first time THAT he ran a mile.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Wordiness is always a problem for me. I have to go back and simplify my ideas.

    Also, as you mentioned with the “said” and character dialogue, I would add that the passive voice throughout any piece of my writing needs to be carefully avoided in revision unless it serves a purpose.

    Good work on the site; I discovered it by chance and plan to come back 🙂

  3. mand says:

    I find i get wordy when i’m tired. My conversation does the same thing, lol.

    Linda, it’s funny you should mention that use of ‘that’, as it came up in a comment-conversation i had yesterday – i think it was yesterday – on the Mots Justes blog.

    Thanx, Sam, for identifying why those -ings don’t work; i’ve always known they didn’t, but hadn’t articulated it as because they’re too passive. 80)

  4. Linda and Mand, yeah, “that” is another word that can be cut most of the time. I try to keep an eye out for that one. Thanks for mentioning.

    Lindsay, yeah, wordiness is often a problem in early drafts. Stephen King, in his On Writing book (great, if you haven’t read it) said your second draft should be your first draft minus 10%. That includes trimming for wordiness as well as unnecessary scenes, I’m sure.

    Thanks for the compliment on the blog. I’m glad you like it.

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