The importance of good dialogue

I’m non too fond of the book I’m reading at the moment and one of the issues is the poor dialogue. I’ve seen a few instances of bad dialogue recently and I thought I would write a wee post to expand on my thoughts.

I remember when I was at school I was told by my teacher to avoid using the wordΒ said when writing speech. ‘There’s lots of excellent synonyms,’ she said (ha!), ‘So use them instead to make for more interesting reading.’

Now I agree that it can be a bit much when reading a passage which is all ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘they said’; but I also hate reading a section of text in which the author has emptied the thesaurus onto the page. For example:

‘He did what?’ Mimi exclaimed.

‘I know I could hardly believe it!’ Janey squealed.

‘I thought he’d know better.’ Shrilled Mimi.

Janey concurred, ‘I totally know what you mean.’

‘Maybe he forgot where he was?’ Hypothesised Mimi.

See what I mean? It can become distracting. Said is a word which we’re so used to seeing and hearing everywhere that it just fades into the background allowing the actual speech to shine through. I hate it when I find myself playing ‘spot the synonym’ because it is so obvious that the author is trying to avoid saying said, especially when they get creative.

But an equally annoying technique is to go to the other end of the spectrum and avoid saying who said what at all. Try reading this passage:

Charlie: ‘The dog is brown’

Ben: ‘The cat is ginger’

‘The cow is black’

‘The bird is grey’

‘The sheep is white’

‘The rabbit is spotty’

‘The dolphin is blue’

Now assuming that there are only two characters in the conversation can you tell me who mentioned the bird? No? Neither can I and I wrote it.

That’s because we have to be able to keep track of who’s talking and after a few sentences it can get a bit muddled. No one wants to have to track back through a conversation to work out who said what. In theory it should be obvious who’s talking from what’s being said but this can be hard to deduce, especially in a long passage.

The book I’m reading at the moment uses this technique and it’s driving me mad. In a story where there are frequently four or more characters in the same place it can be very hard to tell who’s said what, especially since it isn’t always clear who is in the room at the time or even whether the thing being said is current or a memory. But I have other issues with that book which no doubt I’ll cover at a later point.

The main point of this post is this: said is a good word, don’t be afraid of it. My high school teacher may well have had a very good point and there are some wonderful synonyms in our rich and varied language but none of them are quite as fit for purpose as said and I don’t see why those four letters should be judged so harshly.

Disclaimer: Yes, all dialogue is my own work. No, I don’t harbour secret ambitions of being a writer. Oh alright then, I do but I wouldn’t be writing anything featuring squealing or lists of animals.

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15 responses to “The importance of good dialogue

  1. When I was younger, I would spend a good amount of time trying to come up with the “right” verb that was more precise than ‘said.’ I soon discovered that ‘said’ is easier and, as you say, let’s the dialogue carry its own weight.

  2. Great thoughts! I’ve been reading a book on writing lately and it assures me that ‘said’ is an invisible word. It may get repetitive and it’s best not to overuse it, but using said is surprisingly subtle. I’ve been trying it out and it’s interesting, experimenting with how much it takes to overload a piece.

    • It’s nice to hear that people agree with me! it certainly can get a bit too much if it’s the only verb used but it has a very important role in telling a story I reckon.

  3. It’s definitely distracting when people use other words than “said”. It’s ok sometimes but “said” should be the default. Sometimes people try to get too fancy and it detracts from the story. I’m one of those people but am working on writing things simply. It’s hard when you want to impress people. πŸ™‚

    • I know what you mean, you feel like you to have to show off a huge vocabulary which is really important but sometimes it does get in the way of what you’re actually saying. It’s a relief to hear that people agree with me and I’m not being really picky!

      • It’s good to be picky about things like that. Stories should pull us in and anything that distracts from the story is bad. Critiquing other people’s work is a great way to improve my own writing. Constructively, of course. πŸ™‚

  4. The silly things teachers sometimes tell you to do when you are younger can be so hard to break and the ‘said’ thing is absolutely one of them! They don’t even bother to tell you that actually, not using said was to expand your vocabulary but don’t use it now. No, they make you trudge through life until someone tells you how in the wrong you are. πŸ˜›

    Lately I’ve been appreciating dialogue all the more. I hope your next book has some that is better!

    • Indeed, the first thing my science teachers told me when I started my A-levels was that everything I learned at GCSE was wrong. It’s a shame I didn’t do an English A-level or I might have worked out she was wrong as well!

      So do I, I’m over halfway through now so the end is almost in sight…

  5. For me, the “talking heads” phenomenon (with no tags at all) is more annoying than “spot the synonym.” One is just a little distracting while the other actually interferes with understanding what I’m reading. But, that doesn’t mean every bit of dialogue needs a “he said/she said” attached to it, there just need to be enough indications of who’s speaking to keep it clear. Compare…

    “Sharon’s running late again,” Jason said as he tapped his foot rapidly.

    vs

    Jason tapped his foot rapidly. “Sharon’s running late again.”

    Both convey the exact same information, but the second way of phrasing it eliminates “said” without adding a ridiculous synonym. (Even that way of tagging will get old after a while, but it’s a nice way to mix it up.)

    • Definitely, I really hate it when I have to go through a conversation line-by-line to work out who said what, it makes me really want to just stop reading. I’m certainly not advocating adding ‘he said’ to every line of text, just enough to make it clear who’s playing which part. Your example is a great way of tagging speech from time to time and it’s not always necessary to attribute each sentence to a character as long as it’s done often enough to make it clear.

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  7. I’m guilty of trying not to use said too much, but I certainly don’t go over board on the synonyms! This post made me laugh so much!

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