Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Discussion of Dialogue and Style
August 14, 1998
My question is on dialog in a story. Is it good to have a lot of dialog or is it not good? Also, whenever I write a story and I use dialog it always seems that I use the phrase "(name) said." I try to vary that when I write, but it still always seems to be to repetitive.
-- Submitted by Anonymous
When Do You Use Dialogue?
The decision isn't really between dialogue and not-dialogue, or how
much dialogue to have. The decision you're really making is between presenting
a scene in full or using narrative to summarize action, set a scene, explore attitude,
explain something, or any of the other writing that lifts you out of the scene itself.
It's fair to say that most things that happen in the lives of your characters are not
presented in scenes -- because they either aren't important enough or interesting
enough to warrant that level of presentation. In fact, most of the things your
characters do aren't mentioned at any level. How often do you bother to tell when
your characters scratch themselves, blow their noses, use the bathroom, stretch,
tap their fingers, read road signs they pass while driving, or remember that teacher
in third grade who ... well, you get the idea. Only a few events or details are
telling enough to be included in your story at all, and far fewer are worth devoting
the enormous amount of space consumed by detailed scenes.
Presenting a scene in full doesn't always involve dialogue, either -- for instance, if
you're writing a scene in which someone is preparing an elaborate practical joke,
you may show every step he takes and his thoughts along the way, without having
a single word spoken aloud. And sometimes you'll drop a line of dialogue in the
midst of events that are being summarized. But most of the time, scenes will
include more than one character and will require dialogue, and non-scenes won't
need much dialogue, or none at all.
By now you can see where I'm going with this. You don't "include dialogue"
because dialogue is "good" or "not good." You write scenes because those are the
most entertaining or important events, and you use dialogue because what matters
is what the people say to each other. If you included meaningless dialogue -- for
instance, conversation with a store clerk as your character buys gum, when that
conversation leads exactly nowhere and the gum is never even chewed -- then it
only makes your readers impatient for you to get on with the story (i.e., the things
that are causally connected with the dilemmas they care about). And if you
summarize or skip scenes that the readers want to see, you end up losing them
because you aren't satisfying their desire to see these people in action with each
What about "Said"?
What we're really talking about is "tagging" dialogue -- letting us know who says
the words within the quotation marks. The tagword said is invisible to the reader.
Just as readers don't take particular note of the common marks of punctuation,
except to mentally (or orally) read the pauses and the melodic line of the
sentences, they don't notice the repetition of said (with one exception). Think
about it -- do you ever find yourself thinking, "He sure uses the word the too
much." Of course you don't -- because the is invisible, attaching itself to the noun
it makes definite. Likewise, said attaches to a name or pronoun, identifying that
person as the speaker of the sentence in quotation marks.
The only time said becomes visible is when you overload it or replace it too much.
You should only replace said or include adverbs modifying said when the dialogue
itself does not contain enough information to let the reader know how the words
were spoken. For instance:
"Get your filthy hands off me," she said.
With that statement, I certainly don't need to say, "she said angrily" or even "she
shouted," though of course I can use those tags. But I would need an adverb if I
wanted an eccentric reading:
"Get your filthy hands off me," she whispered as she licked his cheek.
In that case, because it is not redundant information, the word said must be
replaced by another tag verb and a modifier ("as she licked his cheek") or the
reader won't understand that "she" is making a seductive joke. But even then, you
can avoid loading the tag by simply putting most of the information in another
She took his wrists and pulled them behind her, so she was folded in his arms.
"Get your filthy hands off me," she said.
Unfortunately, an astonishing number of elementary and secondary school
teachers, utterly ignorant of good style, instruct their poor students to avoid
overusing said. As a result, these poor students think that it's good -- even
necessary -- to indulge in "said-book-ism," where the word said is always either
replaced or accompanied by an adverb. Nothing is ever simply tagged; it's always
replied, whispered, shouted, uttered, remarked, commented, intoned, murmured,
wondered, laughed, hissed, muttered; or said bleakly, happily, merrily, snidely,
nastily, angrily, loudly, softly, in astonishment, under his breath, with a smile, or
... well, you get the idea. Quite apart from the hilarity that arises from inadvertent
Tom Swifties -- "I'm afraid we'll have to amputate," said the surgeon disarmingly
-- it is this variety that becomes repetitive and annoying. That's because the
reader is constantly being distracted from the dialogue and forced to examine
meaningless, uninteresting tags.
Most of the time, all you need is said, because it, plus the name or pronoun,
contains all the information that's needed to tag a line of dialogue. The repetition
of said is only annoying when you have a long stretch of short speeches with only
two speakers active in the scene. And then the solution is not to replace said with
other tagwords, but to omit tags entirely for several lines of dialogue at a time.
The danger in omitting tags, however, is that the author can sometimes lose track
of whose turn it is, and the dialogue doesn't come out even -- you end up with the
same person speaking twice in a row, without a tag, and the poor reader gets lost
trying to figure out who is saying what.
Tagging is mostly a mechanical task. When you go back through your manuscript
to edit, you'll pick up on a few places where you have too many tags, or
overloaded tags, and a few others where you need to insert more information at the
tag. My advice, though, is not to think about it at all during the writing process.
Just use said routinely, except when you must -- and I mean must -- include more
information than a mere tag.
However, I must in all fairness point out that in the genre of women's romance
novels, "said-book-ism" is the convention, not an error. Both the readers and
writers of romance novels seem to have believed those misguided schoolteachers,
and the result is whole novels in which said is never used alone. This is one of the
reasons I can't read romances -- I go too insane with the said-book-ism to get
through more than a few pages at a time. But if that's the genre you want to write,
then you have to respect the conventions of your audience. Beware, though, if you
ever want to escape that genre -- because you can't carry those said-book-isms
with you, and that's a habit that's hard to break!