Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dialogue Dilemmas


If you're a writer, you may already know that he/she said is a long debated issue. Yet there are numerous reputable publications that deal with writing and usage that have addressed the issue enough times that it should be understood by most writers.

If you read children's books you see he said, she said used a lot. That's an indefinite, by the way, but as accurate as I can get. I read a book to Sarah some time ago and it nearly drove me crazy because the author kept using "he said" in every instance of dialogue. Through the whole book. Which was not short enough. I wanted to throw it against the wall before I finished it. I didn't but I wanted to.

As I read the comments to the question posted in an online forum about this issue, I became equally annoyed. I'm not about to throw my computer against a wall so I'll vent by writing a post with my view of the he/she said debate.

First. there is nothing wrong with using he said or she said in dialogue. It adequately identifies the sex of the speaker. That's pretty much all it does.

Example 1:
"Bring me the basket of apples," he said.
"Sure, sweetie," she said.
It is clear who is speaking. It is also pretty boring as dialogue goes. There is nothing happening. But you know someone spoke.

Example 2:
"Bring me the basket of apples."
"Sure, sweetie."  
Now we have a real problem. We have no idea who is speaking. Is it man, woman, child, two men, two women, or Martians. To advocates of he/she said, this appears to prove the point. Clearly, he said, she said does something helpful but is it absolutely necessary to use those two tags to identify speaker? Is there a better way?

Example 3:
Nick snapped the newspaper open and squinted at the page. "Bring me the basket of apples, Susan."
"Sure, sweetie." She placed the small basket in the center of the table. "Nick, where are your glasses?"
He looked over the top of the paper and smiled. "On the nightstand."
Susan rolled her eyes and headed for the bedroom. "Of course they are."
 Note that we didn't use he said or she said one time. We didn't need to because it is very clear from the story who is talking. The usual tags have been replaced by the story moving forward.

Dialogue does not move a story forward, actions do. If I remove all the actions in this example, leaving only the dialogue the characters become flat and stagnant. And if I use he said, she said something else happens.

Example 4:
"Bring me the basket of apples, Susan," he said.
"Sure, sweetie," she said. "Nick, where are your glasses."
"On the nightstand," he said.
"Of course they are," she said. 
I admit this isn't GAN (Great American Novel) writing but which works better: 3 or 4? I think 3 is far more interesting to read and is far less bumpy. The tag he said is like a stop sign with a speed bump: unnecessary and annoying.

Maybe you see no problem with 4. In your writing you always use the he/she said tags and don't think there is anything wrong with it. You have to have it to identify the speakers. Right?  No. Sure you do. OK. Let me prove my point.

Example 5:
"You told me you'd be here at seven," he said.
"I'm sorry. I got tied up at the office," he said.
"Yeah, well, I've been standing here, under this skinny awning for 45 minutes in the pouring rain," he said.
"Look, I couldn't help it," he said.
"What's so important you had to keep me waiting?" he said.
"I got fired," he said. 

Example 6:
Mark yanked open the car door and slid into the passenger seat. "Brad, you told me you'd be here at seven." He shook the rain off his hair, spraying Brad in the process.
Brad winced and swiped his hand across his face. "I'm sorry. I got tied up at the office."
"Yeah, well, I've been standing here, under this skinny awning for 45 minutes in the pouring rain." He tossed his brief case over the back seat and buckled his seat belt.
"Look," he said, "I couldn't help it."
Nick paused and glared at him. "What's so important you had to keep me waiting?"
For several moments, Brad couldn't speak and he used the time to pull into the traffic. He took a deep breath and let it out. "I got fired."

Example 5 or 6? Obviously, in 5 you don't know who is speaking and what is happening. I could have put story before and after the dialogue but again, your reader is going to be annoyed trying to figure out who is talking. They'll also get tired pretty quickly with the repetition of he said. The last thing you want is your reader going to sleep.

"But it is more words!" they said.

Yes, it is. Very good words that move the story forward and don't bore the reader. Note I only used he said once. I could have cut that by restructuring the sentence but I got lazy. And that's why writers fall into the habit of he/she said. It is more work to write paragraph 6 than it is to write 5. It requires more thought.

In and of itself dialogue is boring. If it wasn't people wouldn't go to sleep during speeches. In speeches the speaker or speakers are standing behind a podium, talking to an audience. The average listener's attention span is only 20 minutes long. I suspect the average reader isn't much different unless the book is riveting. Obviously, example 5 is boring. Maybe 6 is too but you have to admit it reads much better.

My point is that using dialogue tags is a tricky business. Although you can use he said or she said after every piece of dialogue, you shouldn't. Really. Yes, it is all right to use it here and there and there are times it will be necessary but do so with exceeding restraint.

I challenge you to write your own page dialogue in different ways. I suspect you'll change your views about dialogue tags and you'll see a major improvement in your writing.

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