I’ve heard repeated arguments that you should avoid using any other word than “said” for when a character speaks.
To some degree, I concur. A lot of beginner writers make the mistake of thinking they have to mark everything their character says by how it’s said. (I was one of them.)
“My car!” she yelled.
“My foot!” he screamed.
“My god!” shouted the pastor.
In this case, “she yelled” and “he screamed” are completely unnecessary. Even the pastor’s shout is useless next to the exclamation mark in his speech. That’s the whole point of the exclamation mark, after all: to show readers that what came before it needs emphasis. If you see “My car!” you know it’s not being said in the same way as “My car” but that there is some emotion behind it.
The thing is, it’s also very easy to go too far the other way and wind up with a chunk of dialogue that means nothing.
This could just as easily be a shopping list as a conversation. If you have an entire chapter like this, readers easily lose track of who’s saying what because there’s very little to differentiate the lines of dialogue.
Break it up
To help break up confusing dialogue, you can give your characters differing speech patterns.
I really wouldn’t recommend spelling dialogue as it sounds. I cannot begin to explain how freaking annoying it is when my friends text or Facebook me with things like “giv er ya number she as anser phone” or “gunna get in touch wi the lass”. Most of them use the same accent and dialect as me but I still have to spend ages trying to decipher their messages. It’s even tougher to decipher written accents if you don’t use it yourself or have never heard anyone speak it before.
“Writing accents requires all sorts of spelling and grammatical acrobatics that are offensive, distracting, and confusing to the reader.”
More than insulting or putting off your readers, it’s also time-consuming and means knowing the accent and dialect back to front so you can accurately portray it.
Dialect & Grammar
Everyone speaks a little differently, even if they live together. (My dad says “book” and “took” as “buck” and “tuck”, but his brother makes them rhyme with “loo” even though they grew up together in the same house.) We pick up words and snippets of grammar from TV, from neighbours, from friends, and from books we’ve read.
I’d never heard the Texan “y’all” until a pen-pal used it in every letter she sent. My family never read those letters so it never became part of their idiolect. Likewise, I went off to university and roomed with two southerners for three years, so I came back with various words I’d never used before. (They said lunch and dinner, my parents said dinner and tea. After three years, I used both interchangeably. Confusingly, we also use “tea” to mean “cup of tea”.) My sister sounds rough as you please in person, but adopts the Queen’s English on the phone no matter who’s on the other end. She might say “Cuppa?” to her family but “Would you like a cup of tea?” to strangers.
You can use these speech patterns to help differentiate your characters through pure dialogue. It will minimise your need to say “he said” because readers will know that only Character A says “y’all” and only Character B cuts all the unnecessary words out of sentences.
“Meesa day startin pretty okee-day with a brisky morning munchy, then BOOM!”
(I’ll give you a cookie if you can guess who said this.)
Don’t go too far
The trick to differentiating dialogue is to do so without pushing so far that your readers find your work unintelligible. Footloose’s massive Merlin fanfic, Loaded March, is a great example of how slang can indicate a character’s regional background without the need for accents. Check out the random quotes from Chapter One of “Radioman” below.
“Gwen versus the slip over there,” Morgana pointed.
“Oi, sod you lot[.]”
“You’re such a git!”
Words like “slip” (meaning “girl”), “oi”, “sod” and “git” are quintessentially “commoner” British. They’re not specific to London (where most of the characters are from), but the dialogue immediately puts you into a British headspace. Later, when Americans, French, and upper-class English gents start to appear, the slang used by the main characters maintains the sense of separation between classes and nations. (Certain characters also drop the occasional “orright”, which sets them even further apart and helps readers understand who’s speaking even when there are twenty main characters in a single scene. That’s leaning a bit too close to portraying accent for my taste, but it’s sparse enough that Footloose can get away with it, and used wisely enough to underscore rather than undermine the dialect.)
As fun as it is to quote Yoda, he doesn’t actually use his odd grammar all that often. When I went looking for quotes to use as examples of his speech patterns, I was disappointed to realise that a lot of them are actually in plain English.
“If you end your training now […] you will become an agent of evil.” (Yoda Quotes)
For such an iconic character, the volume of speech that doesn’t follow his intended grammar is staggering. I understand why they minimised the weirdness — too much unusual speech can be jarring — but it’s equally jarring to realise that half of what Yoda says is completely out of character, and readers have a lot more time to notice these things than viewers do.
“If end your training now, you do, […] become an agent of evil, you will.”
The quote above is what I think Yoda should have said if he’d stayed consistent to his own speech patterns. (I don’t have a perfect handle on grammar rules, though, so I could be wrong.) At the very least, putting “you will” at the end sounds much more like the Yoda I know and love. The original quote could have been said by any one of a hundred characters throughout the three movies, whereas true Yoda-speak is too iconic to think it’s from anyone else.
“Powerful you have become. The dark side I sense in you.” (Yoda Quotes)
Another way to avoid “said” is to replace dialogue tags with action markers. This not only helps to differentiate between characters but also allows you to intersperse dialogue with narrative (rather than having alternating chunks of both) and gives you better control over your pacing.
“My car!” The woman raced down the street after the rolling vehicle, hair a long whip behind her.
The man hopped up and down, clutching at his calf. “My foot!”
On the corner, the pastor gaped and grabbed at his hair. “My god.”
Obviously, how much action or narrative you spin around the dialogue depends on the situation and the pacing. (My example is a little overblown.) Actual action scenes would normally be fast-paced with short, sharp narrative to help cut through the choreography and put the reader on the edge of their seat. Thoughtful scenes, on the other hand, can include more narrative or dialogue because they’re meant to slow your reader down and give them time to digest everything that’s happened.
At some point, much the same as everything else related to writing, how you use dialogue comes down to a choice.
There are those who abhor using anything but “said” for their dialogue. I get where they’re coming from because too many exclamations and screams can get annoying.
I recently re-read a book called VN2 by Gwenna Sebastian (no longer available on Amazon Kindle!) where almost every sentence of dialogue through a long fight scene ended with an exclamation! The scene lost whatever sense of urgency and danger it might have had because everything was emphasised!
I also think these writers are going too far to the other extreme. Just imagine how boring dialogue would be if no one ever screamed or asked a question.
“You stole my cookie. How dare you.”
“Alas, the cookie was a lie.”
It’s like everything, really: alcohol in moderation can be fun, but gods forbid you drink too much and give yourself alcohol poisoning. I try to aim for somewhere in the middle.
What’s your choice?
How do you feel! When you read a book! And every sentence of dialogue! (Or even the narrative!) Looks like this!
Do you go looking for synonyms for said, or are you a minimalist at heart? How do you differentiate your characters through dialogue?