He Said, She Asked

Said and asked are two words that become almost invisible in a story. They help identify who’s speaking—he said or she asked—but they don’t draw attention to themselves. (Unless used too often when not necessary.)

Recently I took advantage of Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I was trying to decide if I wanted to purchase a self-published book. What I found quickly made up my mind. With each book (I “peeked” into 5) I read about 10 pages. Although the writer did use “said” and “asked” and where it was appropriate, used no tag line at all to identify the speaker, she also chose a slew of other synonyms for said. I guess she felt she needed to give the reader some variety.

In those pages I looked at her characters offered, bellowed, hollered, intoned, implored, interjected, questioned, agreed, mused, argued, joked, replied, and inquired. The writer also had: She said aloud. I’m not sure how you say something that’s not aloud. (Whispered, murmured, or yelled, yes, but if not aloud, what?)

I don’t mean to pick on this author. I’m going to assume she’s a new writer and didn’t hire a good editor to go over her manuscripts before she published them. And the reason I’m writing about this here is I’m hoping any new writers reading this blog will take another look at their work. It’s all right to use a dialogue tag other than said or asked, but the moment we start using multiple variations, those tags cease to be invisible.

Also, often the variation isn’t necessary. “Do you want this?” she questioned.

The dialogue alone implies a question.

If two characters are arguing, generally the dialogue will show that. To add, she argued is redundant.

Substituting synonyms for said interrupts a story’s flow. I’m still trying to figure out how to intone something. Also, if using a synonym as a dialogue tag, make sure it is something that can actually be spoken. “I like your dress,” Gloria smiled. This is an example of an incorrectly used/punctuated tag. Change that to—“I like your dress.” Gloria smiled.—and it’s fine. Otherwise, I challenge to you smile words. Betcha can’t. (You can smile while you’re saying it, but you’ll look like a Cheshire cat.)

Just remember, you want your characters and your plot to be important, not how many synonyms you can use for said.

An even better example of what I’m trying to say can be found in Kristen Lamb’s blog, “Are You Blotching Your Dialogue” @ https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/are-you-botching-your-dialogue/

Take a few minutes and read this article.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to He Said, She Asked

  1. paula says:

    “Well done, Maris,” she said with gusto.

  2. I’m trying to use fewer “saids” in my stories and make dialogue strong enough to not need them, sometimes much harder but definitely leads to better writing. Just gotta think more!
    Hope you feel better soon.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I especially dislike seeing several short lines of dialogue followed by he said or she said. If it’s a conversation between two people, the dialogue and topic should make it clear who’s speaking, at least for several lines. Then a he or she said will make the sequence clear and the conversation can go on for a while without any attribute.

  3. Excellent piece, Maris. I just read a short crime novel by a writer known more for his literary fiction, for which he has won awards. To my astonishment he used many of the tags you listed. I also read recently a blog on literary fiction that advised writers to use these tags. Clearly there are two practices out there. I find the additional tags (bellowed, yelled, etc.) and the use of adjectives to accompany said distracting. I want to pull out my green editor’s pen and start rewriting.

    I hope you’re recovering well and will feel back in top form very soon.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, I agree. An occasional use of a tag other than said or asked works fine. But when it reaches a point where I’m wondering what the writer will come up with next, it’s become a distraction.

  4. Great blog post, Maris. I have been guilty of using incorrect tags at times, because I like to use words like “guffawed” and “snickered” lol. Hope you’re feeling better every day 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      Betty, there’s nothing wrong with guffawed. I think a person can guffaw verbally. It’s when the writer starts using unusual words every paragraph or so that the word begins to stand out. Or when the word is used over and over.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post. My editor is great about this because I can get caught up making sure I’m using tags where they aren’t needed.

    • Maris Soule says:

      That’s one thing I look for, Melissa, when editing my rough draft. Questions I ask myself are: Do I need to indicate who’s speaking or is it already clear? Do I need to use a word other than said or asked, or does the dialogue indicate the tone? And, would an action tag give more information to the reader about the character and situation than simply using said or asked?

  6. Debbie Laidler says:

    As a new writer myself, this information is very helpful. Thank you for sharing!

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’m glad the information is helpful. There are no rules in writing. If something works, it works. Some writers can use multiple synonyms for said and they add to the story rather than detracting. It’s only when those synonyms are used too often or incorrectly that they jump off the page and pull the reader away from the story.

  7. ann bennett says:

    The dialogue tags makes me think of a friend of mine. Newly married, she worked real hard to run a great household so her husband would know what a great woman he married. She read where chalk would keep ants out of the house and drew chalk lines like crazy in the house and out of the house. It turns out, ants weren’t deterred by chalk.
    With the best of intentions, things don’t always work out.
    I love your blog Maris.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Chalk it up to experience? (Sorry, I couldn’t let that slide by.) I can just imagine that house, Ann, chalk lines on carpeting, flooring, furniture, and so on.

  8. Sue Myers says:

    Thanks for another great tip. On my first drafts I just keep writing, but make all the corrections on my second pass. Thank heavens for the delete key.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You are so right, Sue. I also love the delete key along with the ability to search for words. I know how easy it is for me to fall in love with a word and use it way too many times. First draft all I want to do is get the story written. After that, I look for the repetitions.

  9. This is good advice. It’s one of the things I edit out when I rewrite. Sometimes a bit of action will help readers visualize the speaker without “she said” such as a frown, a toss of hair, making direct eye contact, etc.

  10. Maris Soule says:

    You’re right, Jacqueline. An action tag can tell much more than he said, or she asked. Using an adverb to show how something is being said is even worse. (She said angrily.) How the character acts either while speaking or right after saying something tells far more about the character.