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How do you vary dialogue within stories? I often find myself writing "'sentence/dialogue' said character", and it sometimes gets really repetitive. How is this managed?

These are the only words that I can think of that can be used alternatively, but I don't find this problem when reading books.

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4 Answers 4

It's best if the dialogue can convey what needs to be expressed rather than relying on dialogue tags. It's a variation of show-don't-tell. Let me hear what the character wants, feels, or is thinking, rather than telling me.

If the dialogue tells me the character is upset, there's no reason to add more information:

  • "I can't stand the way he treated me," she said.
  • "I can't stand the way he treated me," she complained.
  • "I can't stand the way he treated me," she complained bitterly.

It gets worse as you go down the list. Even the first "she said" is unnecessary if the reader already knows who's speaking.

One writer who practiced effective dialogue was James Cain. His dialogue is spare and direct, often with no "she said" or "he asked" at all. Because he could set up a scene well and get his characters to express themselves in vivid and powerful language, they could do all the talking.

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Try to get to a point where the reader can understand who is speaking at which time, and avoid the use of 'said' after the first couple of lines. Obviously name the character who starts speaking, and the second character when they reply, but after that you shouldn't need to explain who it is (especially if there's only two people speaking), just have each part of dialogue on a new line. Don't make the mistake of trying to vary it so much you end up with 'he expostulated' and 'she inferred'.

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I agree with @JMC: try to avoid the said-bookism.

As an alternative to "said", you can always insert a physical action by (or thoughts of) the speaker. For example:

"Let's see here." Jimmy flicked through the survival guide. "Damn. I could have
sworn there was an entry on how to outrun a greased Scotsman."

On the topic of dialogue, I have a great memory of reading the novella Memorare by Gene Wolf. At some point through it I thought: this is some great dialogue. He often has characters, while having a conversation, talk to each other about different topics or on different wavelengths, yet it is all perfectly understandable to the reader. Worth checking out.

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Along with this, it's a good idea to simply omit dialog tags altogether if it's plain otherwise who's speaking, which is very often. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 27 '10 at 15:26
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Gene Wolfe is a bit of a magician. His sentences are long, long long, and somehow readable. –  Neil Fein Nov 28 '10 at 1:29
    
@ash - Great link. I almost ejaculated with laughter. –  JMC Nov 29 '10 at 5:39
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I realize we're talking about dialogue, but the 'said-bookism' link made me think of "in-direct dialogue." For example, rather than doing the following: "Blah, blah, blah," Alice concurred. Just say, "Alice concurred." If the dialogue isn't absolutely necessary and you can sum it up quickly, that will keep things varied while also avoiding "said-bookism" type writing. Otherwise, I'm a big fan of just sticking with 'said'. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 9 '10 at 3:54
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Oh no, he linked to tvtropes! –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 18:03
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Be repetitive and stay with "said", but don't overuse it. Write in a way so it is implied who is speaking. You normally don't have to identify the character that said the last speaking line. Try to keep your conversation between two people whenever possible to keep the dialog interesting and simple for the reader to follow.

"Said" is read automatically by the mind and ignored, which is a good thing. Changing forms constantly to keep out redundancy jars the reader. Try going through your dialog scenes and remove all unnecessary character identifiers after the actual speaking and you'll notice the person talking is usually obvious.

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One place I have noticed the "said" is in audio books. "blah blah" he said. "Whody wha" she said. "Twiddle twattle" he said. But that's why we read things aloud and listen for the sounds of things. Change the rhythm up a little bit, drop an unnecessary "said," etc. –  foggyone Nov 30 '10 at 15:25
    
Remove all unnecessary specifiers. But be aware that longer dialogues can get confusing easily, similar to lines of text being too long. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 18:08
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