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I'm working on my first fiction story. And one mechanical thing I struggle with is how to identify the speakers in dialog without constantly saying "Bob said", "Mary said", etc. Any ideas?

That is, I hate to write,

"I found an important clue," Bob said.

"What was that?", Sally said.

"The killer left behind a glove," Bob said.

"Perhaps we can identify him from fingerprints or DNA," Sally said.

Etc. Said, said, said.

I've tried varying up the verb. Saying "Jack replied" or "Sally exclaimed". That works to some extent, but I feel like it stands out to much. It's too obvious that I'm just doing it to avoid saying "said" all the time.

I've read many books where they leave out the speaker's name, just give the alternating dialog. But even when there are just two speakers this can get confusing, I often find myself saying, wait, which person said this? And if there are three or more characters in the conversation, you can't just count the odds and evens to figure out who's speaking.

I just came across a suggestion somewhere to make each character's speech distinct enough that it is obvious who is speaking. I can think of examples where that would work, like if one character is supposed to be a foreigner and so speaks in broken English, we probably don't need to identify him too often. Maybe another character is the mad scientist and always uses technical-sounding language. But beyond that, how can you do this without it sounding fake?

Other ideas?

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Don't be too afraid of "said." It becomes invisible after a while. That sounds odd, but trust me, it's true. You don't want to overdo it, as you rightly demonstrated, but it's not terrible as a fallback. –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 27 '12 at 12:28
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There's a technique in film-making called "walk and talk" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walk_and_talk) and one of it's uses is, to quote Wikipedia, "adding visual interest to what might otherwise be static "talking heads" sequences". The problem with your example isn't just the repetition of "he said/she said", it's a typical static "talking heads" sequence - nothing is happening. Adding action to it (not strictly walking) like most answers below suggest will not only eliminate "said" tags, but will make the writing more dynamic and add some substance to otherwise uneventful dialogue. –  Tannalein Dec 27 '12 at 14:40
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Lauren Ipsum is correct here. In my wife's writing community they call this 'having a said complex': Trying to alter the verbiage just to avoid repetition of the word said. It isn't necessary and it has a horrible effect on the reader by making all of these replacements stand out: breaking up the flow of the conversation. Far better to use action to fill out the exchange and carry the dialog as Lexi and Dale describe in their answers. –  Mr.Mindor Dec 27 '12 at 18:45
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@Mr.Mindor: the problem with "said" and why people don't like it is that it doesn't actually say anything. We already know someone is saying something, that's why the quotes are there. Substituting it with "whispered", "mumbled" and such is ok if it's used to better describe how the character is speaking (if whispering is crucial for the story) but as a substitute for "said", it's just lazy writing. It's much better to have the character "claim" the paragraph as his own by performing some action, thus making the "said" superfluous, and at the same time making the whole scene more dynamic. –  Tannalein Dec 27 '12 at 22:00
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@Tannalein: Perhaps we are not quite in agreement... Spelling errors and use of said are not near the same category. Said does serve a purpose when paired with a name, it indicates who spoke as opposed to just someone spoke, and it does so in a very lightweight manner. I didn't read Lauren's comment as saying leave all the saids in there, but not to go down the road of replacing them for the sake of variety. Doing acrobatics to avoid the word entirely can make your writing more bloated and harder to read without adding any substance. –  Mr.Mindor Dec 28 '12 at 17:09
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6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There's two main techniques I use. Mix and match as appropriate for your story.

  • The simplest one: for a conversation between two people, don't give attributions like "he said", but just state it. If it's going to be a lengthy conversation, you can also throw names into their speech.

    "Hey Sally, check it out - I found an important clue!"

    "What's that?"

    "The killer left behind a glove."

    "You think we can identify him from fingerprints or DNA, Bob?"

  • For something more elegant, you can replace the attributions with actions. It conveys more of what is happening in the scene, and perhaps within your characters' minds as well. This works quite well for conversations with many people. I've exaggerated a bit below - you probably wouldn't want to qualify every single piece of speech with an action. A few sprinkled here and there would be enough to make the speaker clear.

    "I found an important clue!" Bob held up a scrap of cloth and turned to Sally with a grin.

    From where Sally stood, the cloth could have been anything. She squinted, but couldn't make out what it was.

    "What's that?"

    He shook it around wildly, like a dog that had found a new shoe. "The killer left behind a glove!"

    Sally's heart quickened, and she raced over to examine it closely for herself. "Perhaps we can identify him from fingerprints or DNA!"

Of course, you may simply want to use "he said", "she stated flatly", "she whispered", "he sighed", and the like, from time to time. They're not bad to use, just don't overuse them. Though granted, there are some who will argue that you should just use "he said" the whole time because most readers will skim it (I'm not in that group, fyi :P). See below for an example where you vary it:

"Hey Sal, I think I found an important clue!"

Sally turned toward Bob, who held what seemed to be nothing more than a discarded scrap of cloth.

"What's that?"

"The killer left behind a glove!" His voice was low and excited, as though they were sharing in some kind of conspiracy.

"Of course he did," she said dryly. "Perhaps he was nice enough to leave us fingerprints and DNA on it as well."

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This is objectively and indisputably the correct approach. Full credit to Lexi. Please mark this as the accepted answer . ;) –  Aerovistae Dec 27 '12 at 17:11
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The example in your first block is certainly not a bad idea, though, like many suggestions, I can easily see it being over-used. Real people rarely use the other person's name in a conversation except at the very beginning -- "Hi, Bob!" -- and at an occassional pointed statement -- "You know, Paul, I'm just not going to take this from you anymore." But used in conjunction with other techniques, I can see this being part of the solution. –  Jay Dec 28 '12 at 19:50
    
That's true, you definitely need to mix it up. I've edited my answer with an additional example to show how you can vary it. :) –  Lexi Dec 31 '12 at 14:37
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In some paragraphs, have the speaker do things in addition to speaking. Readers will understand that it's the same person acting as speaking.

Bob knocked on door. "I found an important clue."

Sally held her breath. "What was that?" She cranked the pencil sharpener more furiously.

"The killer left this behind." Bob held out an evidence bag and waggled it. In the bag was a bloody glove.

Carlos's glove. The glove Sally had thrown in the wood chipper only three hours ago.

Sally gripped the pencil so hard that it snapped. "Perhaps we can identify him from fingerprints or DNA."

If there are only two speakers, you don't have to identify them in every paragraph. As long as the dialogue alternates between the speakers, readers can keep track for a few paragraphs. And if each speaker has a distinct voice, you can go even longer without identification.

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I agree with the advice about simply eliminating the attribution in simple dialogue; it's often not necessary. The tips about using action to convey the speaker are good as well. I particularly like Lexi's second example, but all of them are excellent.

You should strenuously avoid overdoing any use of vernacular or colloquialisms. I think it's a terrible idea to give verbal affectations to your characters just in order to distinguish who's speaking in dialogue sections. It might seem all right in a humorous context, I suppose, to have your London cabbie always append "guv'nor" to the end of every sentence, but even that would be barf-worthy as humor. Problems with colloquialisms include not getting it right for the locals, who always have a keen inner ear for this stuff, and badly dating your work.

I really only have one more tip to add: don't be afraid of "said". An editor friend of mine says that nothing screams "newbie" like a long string of "breathed", "growled", etc. Of course, if someone's shrieking, she should be allowed to shriek; my friend's point is that a labored attempt at artful variance will often come off as such. (From the same perspective, I personally think that too many heart-quickenings and pencil-snappings could eventually wear a little thin, though I really do like the examples given.) With careful attention to the techniques demonstrated by Dale Emery and Lexi, the occasional "said" to succinctly get you out of structural hot water may be a grace note instead of a hindrance.

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Yeah, I've read books where every statement has some unusual alternative to "said": "...", Bob cried. "..." Sally whispered. "...", Bob explained. Etc. When overdone like that it's too obvious and distracting. –  Jay Dec 28 '12 at 19:52
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You already have some very good answers here, but it's also worth looking up synonyms for tweaking the mood and feeling for said -

Sshhh ‘I've found a very important clue’ Bob whispered.

Bob grumbled under his breath ‘I've found an important clue’ but it might be too late.

Bob hollered ‘I've found an important clue’!

‘I've found an important clue’ Bob opined.

Bob uttered with steely intention ‘I've found an important clue’.

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So long as you use them sparingly and when they add meaning rather than mere variety. I quite like bookisms and adverbs, although I know many posters here don't. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 27 '12 at 18:33
    
Good general answer, although I don't think opined is particularly good in that example. Perhaps "I've found an important clue!" Bob exclaimed, or, "On the contrary, I think this clue is very important," Bob opined. (But that might just be the way I'm imagining it without additional context.) –  J.R. Dec 28 '12 at 21:00
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One of my best friends in writing is action. Instead of tagging them with "said, exclaimed, shouted, etc." Try having them do an action just before or after the quotes. This lets you know who said it without it being boring. Try it for a while and see if it works for you! Hope This helps!

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When two persons speak, take an approach of "One paragraph per person" and give the reader rare reminders, especially in form of emotes and actions.

"I found an important clue," Bob raised a piece of cloth.

"What was that?", Sally turned to him with interest.

"The killer left behind a glove."

"Perhaps we can identify him from fingerprints or DNA?"

"I don't think so," Bob shook his head. "The glove means there are no fingerprints."

Giving them obvious sides of conversation (asker-answerer, attacker-defender, hopeful-skeptic) removes any doubt.

"So, maybe we try potassium..." the young lab assistant shrugged.

"Far too reactive." professor shook his head.

"Calcium?"

"Non-conductive."

"Lithium?"

"Still far too reactive."

"I've got it! Platinum!"

"Ha. Ha. Ha. We work on a budget, kid."

(30 lines later you'll still have no doubt which one is the assistant and which one is the professor.)

Note, this may make pretty long paragraphs whenever one side does more than a line of talking at a time.

"Perhaps we can identify him from fingerprints or DNA?"

"Yes, of cour..." Bob's voice trailed off. "Oh. Wait. I contaminated it, didn't I?" he turned to her with waning hope in his eyes. "It can still be used to..." he stuttered, "is it? Please, Sal, tell I didn't destroy the only clue," he pleaded, meeting her blank stare. "Sal?"

Whenever you make an exception from the rule, make it obvious and re-identify the talkers, either in speech or in narration.

"Were you present at the location at 16 hours sharp, or not?"

"..."

"Jill, I know it's difficult but I need a verbal answer."

or:

"...and this concludes our story." Tom closed the binder and leaned back in his armchair.

The silence lasted a minute or so. Nobody stirred. Tom chuckled quietly. "So, any takers?" he swept his gaze around the gathered, "or do I see a flock of chickens?"

Of course it gets much more difficult whenever there are more than two speakers. You can allow yourself short passages of unattributed back-and-forth, and "one paragraph per speaker" stands, but you really need to start abusing X said whenever there's no firmly established, undisturbed dialogue between two participants.

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