The ‘said’ tag, part 2: the literature review

There was no consensus of opinion on whether removing the ‘said’ tag is preferable, but most commenters agreed that ‘said’ has it’s place.

So the next step is to review the work of some published authors, and see what sort of variation there is.  I’ve hauled out some recent and popular authors from my shelf, in a wide range of genres.  And of course, while searching through looking for example dialogue, I keep getting caught up in the stories…

First up, Octavia Butler, Wild Seed, SF.

Butler is a masterful writer, and it shows in every part of her writing.  Looking at her dialogue, we find said in use, and asked, and pleaded.  She’s not afraid of adjectives, but uses them sparingly.  She balances ‘said’ with action.  An excerpt:

She frowned.  “How is Isaac seen?”

“As a white man.  He knows what he is but he was raised white.  This is not an easy place to be black.  Soon it will not be an easy place to be Indian.

She was silent for a moment, then asked fearfully, “Must I become white?”

“Do you want to?” He looked down at her.

“No!  I thought with you I could be myself.”

He seemed pleased.  “With me, and with my people, you can.  Wheatley is a long way upriver from here.  Only my people live there, and they do not enslave each other.”

“All belonging, as they do, to you,” she said.

A perfect balance.  I aspire to this much skill.

Next on the list, Neil Gaiman, American Gods, New Weird.

Gaiman is firmly in the ‘said’ camp, but it doesn’t harm his writing at all.  An excerpt:

“I have taken the liberty,” said Mr Wednesday, washing his hands in the men’s room of Jack’s Crocodile Bar, “of ordering food for myself, to be delivered to your table.  We have much to discuss, after all.”

“I don’t think so,” said Shadow.  He dried his own hands on a paper towel and crumpled it, and dropped it in the bin.

“You need a job,” said Wednesday.  “People don’t hire ex-cons.  You folk make them uncomfortable.”

“I have a job waiting.  A good job.”

“Would that be the job at the Muscle Farm?”

“Maybe,” said Shadow.

And it goes on; said is used almost every time a character speaks, unless there’s a steady dialogue, when he will drop one or two tags out.  It certainly reads fine to me.

Third, lets try Sara Douglass, Battleaxe, Fantasy.

Douglass is firmly in the ‘no’ category for dialogue tags.  And frankly, I had trouble finding any dialogue that wasn’t deeply buried in reams of dull, boring exposition.  I like her work, I really do, but fantasy drives me crazy sometimes with the blah, blah, blah…anyway!  Here’s an excerpt:

“You are very generous to offer us help, my dear.”

The younger woman looked at her companion.  “You still do not trust me.”

The older woman’s eyes were as sooty grey as the smoke from a damp wood fire.  They held as many sparks, too.   “You understand the reasons for that, surely.”

The young woman sighed and rubbed her arms.  “Yes.  I do.  But what can I do to make you trust me?  What?”

“Trust cannot be bought or hurried.  It always takes time.”

“But you do not have time!”

The silver-haired woman paused.  “We’ve never had enough time, Azhure.”

Well, it didn’t annoy me when I read it the first time, but re-reading it now, it feels a little contrived.

Last one, as I can hear the small man stirring.

J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, YA fantasy.

Rowling is in the same camp as Butler; said, action and adverbs, all mixed together.  Excerpt:

“When you stripped the house of all the valuables you could find,” Harry began again, “You took a bunch of stuff from the kitchen cupboard.  There was a locket there.”  Harry’s mouth was suddenly dry; he could sense Ron and Hermione’s tension and excitement too.  “What did you do with it?”

“Why?” asked Mundungus.  “Is it valuable?”

“You’ve still got it!” cried Hermione.

“No he hasn’t,” said Ron shrewdly.  “He’s wondering whether he should have asked more money for it.”

“More?” said Mundungus.  “That would have been effing difficult … bleedin’ gave it away , di’n’ I?  No choice.”

Well, that reads fine to me too.  Each style works, reads well and flows well, and I wonder how much of the difference comes from the genre.

Now your turn!  What do you think of each of these techniques?  Does each excerpt work for you?  Do you have an example of a different style or genre you’d like to share?  Have at it!

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8 thoughts on “The ‘said’ tag, part 2: the literature review

  1. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who occasionally becomes obsessed with analyzing the works of established writers in the pursuit of perfecting my craft. :D

    It’s actually a form of insanity, I believe.

  2. Sorry, I’m late. I’ve been spending the weekend trying to wrap up some computer-exclusive projects.

    So what examples I have found. I dived into the fantasy section and hopefully what I picked qualifies as current.

    A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire 2008

    “I’ve heard that lions consort together in a pride,” said Sister Hospitality.

    “Those that let others join,” interjected Brrr. “Let’s not go there.” …

    Dander flecked the lenses; no wonder he peered and blinked at the small notebook in his paw. “I can’t read my own writing. Jackal?”

    “We have no Sister Jackal.”

    “Sister Quackle? No, perhaps a C. Cackle?”

    Sister Hospitality said carefully, “Oh, dear. I wonder if you could mean Yackle. She was laid to rest over a year ago.”

    Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer 2008 This would be the YA selection in comparison to Rowling.

    “Zero,” said Holly. “Absolutely none. I would bet my pension on it.”

    At that moment something, or someone, tapped on the trunk door from the outside.

    Holly rolled her eyes. “No. Not even you…”

    Artemis’s smile was smug beyond belief. “Just how large is your pension?”

    “I do not believe it. I refuse to believe it. It is impossible.”

    Someplace to be Flying by Charles de Lint 1998

    “Ever seen something like this?” he asked. “Or know what it means?”

    “Hello?” she said. “I was born in North America, Hank, not China. And besides, that looks Japanese.”

    Hank smiled. “I know. And you’ve never been to France either. I’m asking you because of your so-called expertise as a tattoo artist, sweetheart.”

    The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson 2004

    “Foul, you sick bastard,” she hissed into Anele’s weeping face, “hear me. If you can talk through this miserable old man, I’m sure you can hear me. You’re finished. You just don’t know it yet. Whatever you do to my son, I’m going to tear your heart out.

    “Your only hope”–her fury rose into a shout–“is to let him go unharmed!”

    Anele struggled weakly against her grasp, but Lord Foul did not release him. His lips trembled as he jeered at her, “Fool! I have no heart. I have only darkness. For that reason, I strive to free myself.”

    Of the four, Donaldson seems to use “said” the least, but he still uses it. So I don’t think “fantasy” is the genre for the anti-said unless it’s more specific sub-genre in it.

  3. You found some great examples, there :)

    Octavia Butler’s excerpt is the closest to what I try for when I write dialogue. It’s a nice mix of action and dialogue that doesn’t overuse ‘said’, but isn’t afraid of it, either.

  4. Gaiman’s is the style I follow – using “said” as a form of punctuation, to vary the speed of exchanges. That excerpt you posted was one of the slower, more thoughtful exchanges in his work – when the pace heats up, the “said” starts to vanish. It assists in controlling the flow and tempo of scenes.

    The Rowling excerpt shits me off. Ron doesn’t need to say something shrewdly. That could have been shown through better dialogue, or visual cues. And why does Hermione always cry out? The exclamation mark was enough.

      • The “fearfully” is a difficult one to portray without going into extended detail. ” Such as, ‘She was silent a moment. Her fingers drummed against the counter. When she thought of Isaac and his deathly pale skin she shuddered. “Must I become white?”

        That works, but it’s pretty ungainly, and takes up a lot of space. And in this case, her fear of becoming white shows quite a lot about her character, and how she perceives others. So, keeping SOME level of fear in that paragraph is necessary, and ‘fearfully’ is the quickest way of doing it.

        Whereas Ron being shrewd could have been shown in just a few words, or even omitted altogether. His shrewdness doesn’t advance the scene, or him as a character. We know he’s shrewd. Everyone in Harry Potter is bloody shrewd.

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