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I get tired of "he said", "she said", "they replied". Is there a better, but still reasonable way, to indicate dialogue?

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This question is slightly different, but a lot of the answers there will be helpful to you: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1861/… –  Standback Jun 22 '11 at 5:04
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Lots of best selling authors like Clive Cussler and Robert Ludlum dont always use it, though they get thrashed by the critics for it. @kindall rightly points out that "he said..." is invisible to the reader, and should be used as much as possible –  Shantnu Tiwari Jun 22 '11 at 10:34
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5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I like to describe the how (explain intonation, body language) and the purpose of the dialogue, not just the fact of the speech being made.

"Your chest pains have not subsided, have they, Mr. Gittes?" Zimmerman squints at me across the desk.

"How did you guess?" I mumble, scanning his morose, concerned expression.

He arches his eyebrows, avoiding my question. "I assume you're experiencing... hallucinations?"

I turn to leave the office. "Well, would that be expected? Just from codeine?"

He shakes his head in response and releases an impatient sigh. He rises to his feet. “You can’t hide behind those sunglasses, Jake. We can all see you.” His eyes flick upwards, indicating the crowd of spectators in the gallery; we’re trapped inside a play by the Marquis de Sade. He begins to undress to jeers from the audience. Exit stage left.

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I also agree with the above answer however, but if you're dialogue isn't particularly engaging in terms of the overall narrative (i.e. if its just phatic talk to create awkwardness)- the reader may begin to completely switch off constantly reading "He said/she said". –  Edward Rose Jun 22 '11 at 1:50
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So as a writer, especially in 2011, where such annoying formalities only matter to the constipated :D... can I just ignore the "he said she said" rule? (I'd love it). –  RolandiXor Jun 22 '11 at 2:25
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I personally enjoy ignoring the purported "rules of writing". Its an existential artform, just write what you want, man. Look at Cormac McCarthy, he doesnt even use quotation marks because his character's voices are so distinctive and strong. –  Edward Rose Jun 22 '11 at 2:38
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I strongly disagree with this answer. The example given above actually demonstrates why you shouldn't (overuse) this method. The dialogue becomes completely flat as a result, and you're explaining/showing things you don't need to. Why mention the face is morose, or concerned? The dialogue should reveal the character's mood. Why mention he's avoiding the question when we already know he doesn't answer? Why mention he shakes his head when we know he disagrees? Why mention he gives an "impatient sigh"? All of this is just fluff, and detracts from the actual dialogue. @kindall's answer is spot on. –  Craig Sefton Jun 22 '11 at 19:11
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I agree that the method is overused in this answer. Then again, we're just trying to illustrate the technique here, so one might expect it might be used a bit densely in this small snippet, simply to show different ways the technique could be applied. I wouldn't expect a whole novel to read like this, but those are good examples of how to break up a monotonous string of he said/she said, which is what the O.P. wanted. –  J.R. Jun 17 '12 at 2:07
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From the Turkey City Lexicon:

“Said” Bookism

An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

The answer is: you may be bored with it, but your reader doesn't care. If you must use something other than "said," use the simplest, most common word you can get away with. But mostly, use "said."

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Thanks! "he ej..." um... couldn't they use something less offensive (mentally)? –  RolandiXor Jun 22 '11 at 2:22
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That word used to also have a more innocuous meaning... Before people decided it was just so darn handy for describing one thing and one thing only. –  Standback Jun 22 '11 at 4:59
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Yeah. Kind of like the crossword clue: "Four-letter word meaning 'intercourse', ends in K... oh, TALK!" –  kindall Jun 22 '11 at 6:07
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I do like to mix up my dialogue tags, but it's true; "said" really becomes invisible in short order. Don't be afraid of it. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 22 '11 at 12:05
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This is my feeling as well. "Said" is an invisible word that doesn't get in the way of good dialogue, whereas screeched, shrilled, and so on simply call attention to the writer's inability to elicit emotion inside the quotes. –  Robusto Jun 23 '11 at 11:53
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My personal preference: omit the "he said" / "she said" entirely. You will need it when there is the slightest possibility that who is speaking is unclear, but otherwise there is no need for it. If you wind up with a stretch of dialogue so long that it's easy to lose track of who is speaking, that's a sign that your dialogue needs to be cut down or broken up by action anyway.

But you have to do it carefully. One book that does it wrong is "And Another Thing" by Eoin Colfer, or at least my edition of it. I was confused about who was speaking on more than one occasion, because he (or his editor) didn't apply the following rules:

  • If a character is the subject of some description (say, performing an action), and the character then speaks, then his line of dialogue goes in the same paragraph as the description. In such a case, no "he said" is needed because, if it were somebody else, there would be a paragraph break.
  • If, however, you just finished describing what Joe does and then Jane speaks, Jane's line goes in a new paragraph and should include "she said" or "said Jane" for clarity.
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Thanks. This is very useful. –  RolandiXor Dec 25 '11 at 1:22
    
It's so irritatingly confusing when writers don't follow "one character per paragraph" rule! Good practice would be to put each character's action in it's own paragraph even if there is no dialogue involved, unless the action is too complex to be separated to a single character. –  Tannalein Dec 27 '12 at 14:57
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Best advice I ever got on this: use an action just before they say something. It's really easy. make them do something and then put what they said next to it. people understand who's talking, but they don't get tired of "he said", "she said", "they replied". Have fun writing!

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I've been considering using this as my method, and it's good to have someone confirm that it's a good strategy :). +1! –  RolandiXor Dec 28 '11 at 2:21
    
I too use this! +1 ;) –  Amin Mohamed Ajani Jan 4 '12 at 19:21
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Use something like:

He folded his arms and sat up straight. "And you suppose he had a different motive?"

or

Her eyes widened. "Really?"

I also like to use this style in an ongoing conversation:

"You're telling me that I'm fired," Jeremy muttered.

His brother, the current president of the company, shook his head. "No I'm not."

"Then why does it sound like it?"

"I'm only suggesting that you improve the way you work around here."

"I'm working just fine! I don't see you doing anything!"

"Then you're fired."

Jeremy stood up and walked toward the doorway. "I hated this job, anyway."

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