Skip to content

She said – He said

It’s important to clearly identify who is speaking in a story. The most common way to do this is to use the word “said” before of after the dialogue, as in “She said” or “He said.” This little word has almost magical qualities. Not only does it indicate who is speaking, it actually disappears in the minds of readers so that they are only conscience of the dialogue itself.

Mary said, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom said, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”

Sometimes, writers want to indicate the emotional state of a character who is speaking. Authors may substitute descriptive verbs and adjectives in place of the word said in an attempt to indicate the mood of the speaker. If authors want to show happiness between two people, they might write:

Mary chuckled, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom responded jovially, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”

Alternatively, if authors want to indicate irritation, they might write:

Mary chided, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom retorted haltingly, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”

Both of these examples have problems. The verbs and adjectives slow the story because readers must stop and process them. They also become tiresome to read when used repeatedly. A better way to indicate the emotional state of a speaker is to give them an action or describe a physical response.

Mary thrust her hand into the glove. She said, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom cringed. He said, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”

Here we see Mary’s anger and Tom’s reaction. Because we are describing action, we can delete the word said and just write:

Mary thrust her hand into the glove. “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom cringed. “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”

Because the dialogue immediately follows the action of each character, readers will know that the character involved in the action is the one who is speaking. This puts the action and physical response within the flow of the prose and propels the story forward without interruption.

External events, such as the state of objects or the weather, can also provide clues to a character’s emotional state while indicating who is speaking.

Lightning scratched across the horizon, silhouetting Mary against the darkening twilight. “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”

Readers will associate the spoke words with Mary because she is the object of the sentence preceding it, so there is no need to insert, “She said” before the dialogue. Using a word suggesting a violent act. such as scratched as opposed to flashed, adds tension and communicates anger. Placing Mary against the darkening twilight accentuates her dissatisfaction with the situation.

Still, if these or any other techniques are repeatedly used in close proximity in a story, the pacing can become bland.

Building a mood within a scene and exposing the character’s intuitive realizations can make it clear who is speaking, express the emotional state of the speakers and demonstrate the fortitude of their characters more effectively than giving physical descriptions of action alone. Here is the opening from my novel Beyond the Shallow Bank.

---

The oil lamp on the bedside table was turned down such that it cast more shadow than light. Margaret Talbot lay for an instant and panted as she stared up at the ceiling. Then the pain returned, like dozens of razors ripping through her. Margaret arched her back and muffled a scream.

The midwife leaned down and wiped sweat from Margaret’s forehead before standing to make the sign of the cross. Margaret cried out, “John.”

The door opened and her husband ran in to kneel at her bedside. His moustache was untrimmed and his hair was tousled. He took her hand in his and held it against his cheek. “I’ve hailed a carriage. We’ll be at the hospital in a few minutes.”

“Something’s wrong.”

He kissed her hand gently. “The doctor said labor could be hard with a first child.”

“Not like this. Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”


---

The lamp that sheds more shadow than light sets a mood of danger and impending trouble. When Margaret pants while lying on her back, we feel her tension and experience her fear that something bad is about to happen. When the pain comes, the sensation is that of ripping razors, an act of violence. Margaret’s fortitude is demonstrated when she muffles a scream, even though the pain is excruciating. When the midwife makes the sign of the cross, the possibility of death is suggested. When John kneels at Margaret’s bedside, his disheveled look shows his concern and his fear for Margaret’s safety that overrides all thoughts of himself. When he tries to reassure Margaret, her intuition warns her, beyond the reasoning of any doctors’ words, of the peril she is in.

Placing characters into a scene and carefully choosing words to describe the setting and action clarifies the emotions of the characters while clearly identifying each speaker.

Trackbacks

No Trackbacks

Comments

Display comments as Linear | Threaded

No comments

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.
CAPTCHA

Form options