Who’s saying what and how?

Do you use he said and she said when writing dialogue? Do you think they’re old-fashioned or redundant?

Or do you lean towards some of the alternatives given in the diagram?

In my opinion there are some valid alternatives given here but they should be used very sparingly and very carefully, and only to enhance the speech.

You don’t want too many elaborate verbs to get in the way of your dialogue.

Let’s take an example using a couple of the suggestions given:

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ Tom thundered.

‘I was only taking a quick peek. Please don’t shout, you’re scaring me,’ Emma quaked.

‘Put them back,’he commanded. ‘I don’t want you prying through my things.’

How did that sound to you? Amateurish? Just what I thought. Try reversing one of them to read: Emma quaked, ‘I was only taking a quick peek. Please don’t shout, you’re scaring me.’ to see how it sounds. If it doesn’t sound ok then it’s probably wrong either way round.

Show your characters emotion and tone of voice

We know that Tom is angry because he uses the words, ‘What the hell …’ We also guess at Emma feeling nervous when she says, ‘…you’re scaring me.’ And ‘Put them back.’ is definitely an order – we don’t need you to tell us that.

If Tom comes into the room and stops when he sees Emma, expression evaporating from his face, you start to get the picture already.

Now compare it with the following:

Tom stepped into the room and stopped when he saw Emma at the bureau. All expression evaporated from his face and his fists clenched at his sides. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

Emma swung round, trying in vain to close the lid and backing away. ‘I was only taking a quick peek. Please don’t shout, you’re scaring me.’

‘Put them back. Now.’

Notice I didn’t even use, he said, she said, he thundered, she quaked. I’ve tried to be descriptive enough that you know what the tone of voice is.

Your reader will also draw on their own experiences of being found out, or of finding someone else out. They’ll have a good idea how Tom and Emma are feeling. Trust me.

Don’t go over the top

Words like responded, demanded, sobbed, giggled, will either sound out of place, unnecessary or over-the-top.

Consider this:

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Emma marvelled.

Tom knew this was his moment. ‘Will you marry me?’ he inquired.

‘Oh Tom, I thought you’d never ask.’ she giggled.

Now, how about this?

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Emma said, her voice quiet and full of wonder.

Tom knew this was his moment. He’d loved her since they were children. ‘Will you marry me?’ he said.

Emma looked up and giggled in that endearing way of hers. ‘Oh Tom, I thought you’d never ask.’

Hmm. Slightly better. Still corny though.

What do other authors use?

Check what you’re reading at the moment. What does the author use?

Check some of the classics and best-sellers and see how they mark dialogue. Some authors don’t even use speech marks but they tell the story in such a way that you’re very clear on who is speaking.

The advice I would give is that anything that comes after the speech marks should disappear so the reader hardly knows they have read them. He said and she said are innocuous enough to do just that.

In a conversation between two people you should use any indicator to who is speaking sparingly at first and then drop it altogether. If only two people are talking the reader will keep up – as long as you’re clear enough when you set them off into the conversation.

The dialogue is the most important bit

It is the dialogue that is most important. It is what informs your reader and carries your story forward. It should sound natural and free-flowing with nothing getting in the way of it. Your reader should be able to conjure up the voices with no intrusions. They don’t want you interrupting the story to tell them that Tom thundered; if you’ve done a good enough job they will know he’s angry by the time they get to the words on the page.

How do you indicate who is speaking when writing dialogue in your own stories? Have you ever tried someone else’s style because you found it interesting?

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