January 9, 2012

He Said, She Said...

Recently, I read a bestselling novel by a very well-known novelist. This novelist will remain nameless, but you cannot go into a bookstore without finding one of his novels staring you in the face.

There are lots of good ways to handle dialogue attribution in a story.  You rarely need to use the phrase "he said" or "she said" in your fiction.  Let's imagine that I've written a scene in which two people, a husband and wife, are arguing.  Part of that scene appears below:
Jane jabbed a finger at Tom's chest.  "I don't like that stupid flannel shirt."

"What's wrong with it?"  He looked down at it, his palms facing out toward her, next to his hips.

"Please, Tom.  Those plaid flannel shirts are practically a cliché.  Do you actually think you look good in that?"

"You think you look good in that jogging suit?"

"No, but at least I don't go outside in it."

"Thank goodness for that."

If  you look at the above passage, you'll notice that I never once needed to use the phrase "he said" or "she said" (or any variant of it).  In spite of that, I doubt you had any trouble realizing that it was Jane commenting about not going outside in her jogging suit, or Tom asking what was wrong with his shirt.

This brings us to that bestseller I mentioned earlier.  In his novel, the above conversation might have read this way:
"I don't like that stupid flannel shirt you're wearing," Jane said.

"What's wrong with it?" Tom said.

"Please, Tom."  Jane said, "Those plaid flannel shirts are practically a cliché.  Do you actually think you look good in that?"

"You think you look good in that jogging suit?" Tom said, as he rolled his eyes.

"No, but at least I don't go outside in it," she said.

"Thank goodness for that," Tom said.

After reading a few chapters, all those "he said" and "she said" attributions were grating on me.  I wondered just how often the author was using them.  Since it was an eBook, I copied the text of one chapter into a word processing program.  I had the program identify the unique words used in the chapter and count them.  When it finished, I found that ten percent of the words in the chapter were "said".  That seemed a bit extreme to me.  I wondered how his editor let that go.

The problem with all that dialogue attribution is that it took me out of the story.  Instead of envisioning the conversation in my mind, I found myself very clearly aware that I was reading the transcript of a conversation, not hearing that conversation in my mind.

There are other ways to convey who is speaking in a scene without resorting to "he said/she said" or any of its variants, like "he explained" or "she sighed".  These include:

  • References in the dialogue:  In my example, Jane mentions Tom's name.  There are only two people in the scene, and it's unlikely Tom is calling himself by name, so we infer that it's Jane speaking that line.

  • Action statements near the dialogue:  We see on the first line that Jane points at Tom just before commenting on his flannel shirt.  We know Jane is speaking without having to say it.

  • The speaker's word choice:  Each person speaks a little differently than another.  Maybe one of your characters adds "I've just gotta tell ya" or "let me tell you" before sharing information she feels strongly about.  Perhaps another character never uses contractions, or always addresses everyone as "Mister" or "Misses".  These unique speech patterns will not only make your characters seem more real, but will help you avoid having to tell the reader who is speaking in a scene.

There is one time where using "he said" or "she said" can be of value to you.  Specifically, that's where you want to insert a pause into the middle of what the character is saying.  For instance:
"The killer," Detective Jones said, "is none other than Jeeves, the butler."

In the above example, the dialogue attribution adds a suspenseful pause into the middle of the detective's announcement.  If that is your intention in using the tag, it's perfectly acceptable (as long as you don't overdo it).