On Writing: he said/she said….

WritingFor years, writing gurus said to only use the tags, he said or she said, never she answered, or she shrugged, or he laughed in order to strengthen dialogue lines.

That makes sense. If you write, “You did what?” he laughed… the phrasing complicates the action rather than refines.

Lately, I’ve been working on removing tag lines to make a conversation more immediate and bring the reader deeper into the story. I often use narrative paragraphs and insert dialogue into action as another way to make the scene immediate.

Nick led us along the edge of the jagged cliff wall and pointed out marks that indicated the old road. “Kamehameha built this all the way around the island. Most of it’s gone now.” Nick looked saddened by the wavering marks at his feet. He lifted his head to look out over the sea and his eyes narrowed as if wondering whether the enemy was sea or time.

I didn’t need to use “he said” because the action showed who was speaking.

Marion followed. “Do you have time to listen to a dream?” I always had time for dreams. Her fingers drew idle circles across her belly. She’d dreamed this child would be a boy and would carve a path without her. Her eyes, when she looked up, pooled into brown puddles. “Boys do,” I said. My sons and I were close, but they’d pulled away as they became older teenagers. “If you let him fly, he’ll come back.” The worried crease between her eyes softened. “Are you sure?”

Because I had two speakers in the above paragraph, it helped to use ‘I said,” – and use it early so it didn’t distract from what followed. By inserting the dialogue into the paragraph rather than separating each line of dialogue into a new paragraph, I wanted to make the conversation more immediate.

So what do you think? Do these paragraphs work for you or are you confused by the format?

How do you create immediacy in your writing? What works for you? I’d love to hear about it.

6 thoughts on “On Writing: he said/she said….

  1. When I first started writing, I was really bad about using phrases like “she laughed,” or, “he said awkwardly.” Then, I found two quotations that have served me well. One is from Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” The other, from Chekhov, is equally good: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

    What you’ve said above seems right in line with that pair of quotations. Like you, I’m trying to get better at letting the story line contextualize the dialogue, as you have here.

    1. Have you read “The Mandarins” lately? (de Beauvoir)

      I studied that to see how she used such a lot of narration and yet at the same time, kept the narrative present and alive with the inserted dialogue.

      Because I’m writing a memoir, and because much of the memoir focuses on internal learning/dialogues with myself, and times when I was very solitary, I had to find a way to keep it alive.

      Love the Chekhov quote…the glint of light on broken glass….

      If you’ve not read John Banville, I highly recommend the crazy Irishman. He builds words into magical sentences.

  2. I like the point that you make about combining dialogue with action. It eliminates the ping-pong effect of untagged conversation.

    In your second example I think that I lean toward separating the paragraph into two separate ones at the start of “Boys do.” Maybe that is just ingrained habit on my part, but I am going to think about it—and perhaps try it— when I write my next story.

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