Thursday, March 24, 2011

He said, she said, but I shouted

I was reading over an old favorite post from 2007 on Nathan Bransford's blog, and I wanted to get your feedback on the issue.

After I finished Lucifer's Odyssey, I tried to get several friends to read it. Often after giving out the first chapter (or even worse the whole thing), my friends would just not read any of it - at least that's what they claimed. I tried to pry them for info, and one of them finally told me "I would really you rather just use said or asked instead of using action words everywhere. It makes it hard to read."

So, I did some digging and found the post linked above. I also found this gem on Nathan's blog, and here's what I have tried to do in my book.

  1. Use said and asked as the main drive of dialog.
  2. Do not use non-tags for more than 3-4 lines of dialog. When I'm reading, nothing distracts me more than non-tagged dialog that extends beyond the page barrier, forcing me to try to read back a page to figure out who is saying what.
  3. Use actions, where appropriate, to break up usage of said/ask to enhance a scene - never to simply avoid said/asked.
  4. If the conversation is at normal volumes, never resort to words that you feel are normal volume but with emotion like scoff, blurt, etc. To me, this breaks up the dialog and forces me to concentrate on the action word.

The worst thing I feel I can do, as an author, is use action words out of context that confuse the reader. Before you ask, I have read this type of usage in many indie books. For some reason, authors tend to use shout or yelled just because they consider the characters in an excited state and this rarely translates well when I'm reading.

So, what do you guys and gals think of this method? How do you structure dialog? Have you ever read a piece of dialog that just blew your mind with how awesome it was? Do you remember why you felt it was such great dialogue?


  1. I agree that you have to be able to track who said what in dialogue. There is nothing worse than getting lost. But by the same token reading "said" 50 times on a page grows a little old.

    Personally I'm trying to use as few descriptors as possible whilst maintaining obvious attribution. Most conversations don't need actions to go with dialogue, unless you have physical actions to describe. E.g. if you have a '?' at the end of a piece of dialogue I think it is redundant to have 'he asked' straight after it.

    Of course this is going to vary by the story being told. I don't think my story Overturned Stones, told in first person narrative, would be the same as the sci-fi 3rd person I'm working on.

  2. Well, I tend to not do "he asked" anywhere. A lot of dialogue in my book has three or more people involved, so they are almost always named. In that case, it's harder to use no-tag or pronoun said statements.

    When you get something ready with your style of writing, let me know. I'd like to take a look at the dialogue. I'm more than willing to change how dialogue is done in my books if it helps readers.

  3. Yeah, the three or more conversations have to have something. I had a great idea for a scene between 4 people and wrote it down without anything other than the dialogue. When I came back to it I found it really hard to attribute who said what, even though I knew that scene inside out.

    And thanks for the Beta offer. I'll let you know, but it won't be until much later this year. Although I do plan on taking a couple of weeks off work soon to write, I may only end up reading books.

  4. Nothing wrong with taking your time to write, man. Offer will be valid later this year, early next year, and maybe even when we're fifty as well ;). Cheers!