He said/She said

He said/She said  – On Dialogue  


“You really need to work on your dialogue,” she said.

“Oh really?” He answered smart-assedly.

Yes, really.  Dialogue is a tricky thing – first to be able to write the way people actually talk and then, well, to label it correctly.

Do you have to tell the reader how a phrase was said?

Sweetly, softly, smartly, bravely…said.

Sometimes, you can and should use those tricky -ly words.  I like to add adverbs in too, but only sporadically.  But most of the time, context and showing is much better than telling with an adverb.

Letting us read: “Yes, she said sweetly,” is a bit of a cheat.  Why not show us how she did it – is she toying with her teaspoon as she answers?  Is it a kind of false sweetness?  Is she naive or just sweet?  I really don’t know by just a “said sweetly.”

Do you have to label all of the dialogue?  

“Sometimes,” she said.

“It depends,” he said.

Do you have to identify who says what all the time? Nah, of course not.  If there are two people speaking, most readers will understand that a different line is a different person speaking.  If it goes on for pages, it can’t hurt to throw in a character identifier here or there.  If more than two people are talking, you should probably keep character labels to keep readers from getting confused.

Can you use more than just “said?”  

“I like giving my thesaurus a workout” he mused, stroking his beard.  “There are lots of options, but don’t overdo it.” She responded, sticking her tongue out.

Of course you can use more than just he said/she said, it helps liven things up a bit.  And as artistic beings, we writers love to spice things up and be creative.  But, as with all things, cracking that thesaurus open too often can prove to be distracting to your readers.  I say, write what feels right during the rough draft and then later, during the revision process, take a look at how you identify your dialogue scenes.  Tighten up where it needs it and flesh out where it’s a little too lean.

As with any of our writerly skills – the more you write and the more you read, the better you become. 🙂

9 thoughts on “He said/She said

  1. All good points.

    Some argue that “said” is considered an “invisible word,” and as such most readers won’t even register it. I myself strongly disagree, as it has always stuck out to me and often left me wanting more. Really, I’m not much one for dialogue tags in general; I much prefer there to be a description of action, or body language.

    Of course it does depend on style and story. I think at the end, moderation in all things is key.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh this post is lovely. Work out his thesaurus…brilliant. I find the best way to figure this out is to read what you’ve written to yourself and see if it fits with the pacing. I find in exciting, anxiety-riddled scenes it’s best to avoid the identifiers as much as possible, and just let the dialogue move fluidly. The more complex and in-depth the discussion, the more identifiers you’ll need. If 10 people are in a political argument at a table, you’ll see more identifiers than if two people were sharing secrets under a night sky. Another thing I’ll do is take an act done during the dialogue as an identifier, that way you avoid the -ly and the he/she saids a little bit. Hemingway has a great short story called Hills Like White Elephants that’s told exclusively in dialogue. It’s a guy and a girl on a train arguing over whether she should get an abortion (in typical uplifting Hemingway fashion) but it was an interesting and informative read. Really shows off the power of dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “GREAT POINTS!” Rachel said enthusiastically.
    “Don’t over-emphasize by using all capitals,” she cautioned.
    “Sorry about that,” Rachel replied. “I was just excited to read such a magnificent post.”

    Liked by 1 person

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