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!