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Mary Deal

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Let the Dialog Speak
by Mary Deal   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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Ways to kill a good story.



Proper use of “said” and the use of “beats” will keep a story flowing smoothly.



Books and articles turn up touting the value of replacing the use of the word said. She said. He said. Many claim said is overused and tiresome. They supply an endless plethora of verbs, nouns and adjectives to use instead. But my opinion is that, in most cases, there are no substitutes, given what said does when used properly.


Said is acceptable enough to hide in the background and not call the reader’s attention to dynamics of speech that would best be shown with punctuation. Said is simply a speaker attribution and tells us who said what in the course of conversation.


However, said can become grossly overworked. This is why many people have tired of it. This is an example of overuse:


   “Hola, Papi,” Pablo said. “When do we eat?”

   “About ten minutes,” his father said.

   “I’m going back to the street then,” Pablo said. “I’m winning all the races.”

               “Hey-hey,” Rico said. “Be on time for dinner.”


               “Si, Papa,” Pablo said.


Taken from my novel, The Tropics, this conversation flows much better when written this way:


    “Hola, Papi,” he said, eyes eager and smiling. “When do we eat?”


               “About ten minutes.”


   “I’m going back to the street then,” Pablo said, starting to run away. “I’m winning all the races.”


               “Hey-hey,” Rico said. “Be on time for dinner.”


               “Si, Papi.”


Each sentence, both dialog and narration contains slight variations. The description of actions included with dialog is referred to as beats. The characters are not only talking. They are involved in doing something at the same time they speak.


When the actions of characters are included, the writer must be careful not to overuse beats. They serve the purpose of avoiding dialog with a running string of “saids” or speaker attributions.


I wholeheartedly agree with Renne Browne and Dave King. In their book, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” they say:


 “If you substitute the occasional speaker attribution with a beat, you can break the monotony of the ‘saids’ before it begins to call attention to itself.”


A beat is not necessary in writing, but it makes for smoother reading and understanding of the characters.



For example, if you are speaking in live conversation with someone, you hear their words and watch their body language, or watch what they direct your attention to. The beats are their gestures.


In reading, beats allow for a silent pause; a moment to digest what is being said and the action emphasizes the dialog.


On the page, a speaker attribution identifies who is speaking. The word said is accepted because it remains in the background. It does not make us pause to visualize or try to understand the way that the character speaks. Here’s another example when said has been replaced:


    “What more?” Ciara questioned. “I know what I have to do. Rico also had a sister he never talked about. Help me find her—”



    “Senorita,” Lazaro interrupted. “There’s a reason why he never spoke of her.”


                “You know about her?” Ciara quizzed.


    “Si, si. She had breast cancer,” Lazaro sympathetized.


Now the same conversation from The Tropics, written another way:


    “What more?” Ciara asked. “I know what I have to do. Rico also had a sister he never talked about. Help me find her—”


               “Senorita,” Lazaro said. “There’s a reason why he never spoke of her.”


               “You know about her?”


               “Si, si. She had breast cancer.”


Another aspect of smooth writing is that when only two characters are speaking, you need not identify each by name each time they say something.



You also need not include any speaker attribution at all, unless the dialog string is too long. Simply establish who spoke first, who responded, and the reader will follow along. Also, a good place to insert a few beats is in any string of dialog where speaker attributions are not used.


This gets more complicated when you have three or more people sharing conversation. A few more speaker attributions are acceptable, and a beat both aids in showing us the characters actions and prevents a string of attributions each time a new voice is written in dialog. Here’s another example of over-use:


    “I haven’t seen Larry for months,” Ruby said.


    “I thought you two were tight as thieves,” Brad said.


                “Not that tight,” Ruby said.


                “Guess we all had it wrong,” Denny said.


                “You guys and your assumptions,” Ruby said.


Here’s a better example:


    “I haven’t seen Larry for months,” Ruby said.


    “I thought you two were tight as thieves,” Brad said, as he pressed a hand against the gun inside his jacket.


    “Not that tight!” Ruby looked around the room, all the while feigning nonchalance and looking like any other customer in the bar.


    “Guess we had it all wrong,” Denny said as he took another sip of his drink.


               “You guys and your assumptions….”


In the revised example, when a speaker attribution is not included, we still know who is speaking. Using a beat makes it easy to know to whom the dialog belongs, so leave off the attribution.


Notice, too, that “chimed in” or “quipped” or “volunteered” or “whispered” and such other attributions did not substitute for the word said. What really happened among the “saids” in the second example is that the word said receded into the background and allowed us to fully comprehend the urgency of the conversation.



Because of the punctuation, we didn’t have to be told about voice inflection or any other way that the speaker spoke, which would have made us stop and visualize the action or the tenseness of the conversation.


The choice of words and punctuation in the dialog did that for us, with the help of said, which quietly did its part, as it should. Our eyes read the important words, while said registers only subconsciously. All we need to further the action is to read on.


Attributing dialog to certain characters need not be overdone. Proper punctuation does that for us. For example:


    “You klutz!” he exclaimed.


The exclamation point tells us the remark was an exclamation and not a quiet statement or a question. It is not necessary to repeat to the reader that it was an exclamation. Readers do not like redundancy. It’s very off-putting, as if the writer is sure the reader won’t get it.


Therein lies the erroneous motivation for writers to use attributions other than said. An experienced reader comprehends the first time through with proper punctuation.

 Many writers make the mistake of thinking they can add impetus to dialog by including many and varied attributions. This is as bad a practice as using your hands and arms in front of your face when you speak. When talking, words and intonation speak for themselves and most hand gestures, at best, are rude. So, like hand gestures, a writer may irritate a reader through redundancy.


            Yet another incorrect usage of attributions has become quite common:


    “I hope you like it,” she smiled.


               “It’s way over there,” he pointed.


               “I’d like to take you home with me,” she lilted.


These are unemotional sentences that do not need further modification. “Smiled,” “pointed” and “lilted” did not speak those words. Such verbs have no place as speaker attributions. Only in a few instances can said be replaced correctly. One way those sentences can be written properly, and sparingly, is given below. Notice the punctuation:


    “I hope you like it,” she said as she smiled.


    “It’s way over there,” he said, pointing.


    “I’d like to take you home with me.” Her voice was low and lilting.


Here are two last examples of punctuation and attributes that just don’t convey what they were meant to:


                “Fire…,” she exclaimed.


                “Fire,” she screeched.


And if we already know who is speaking:


                 “Fire!” he said.


Or simply…




With many other places writers can get creative, speaker attributes are best left to the time-tested said, accompanied by proper punctuation in the dialog.


This article appeared in Mississippi Crow magazine.



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