He Said, She Said

As I’ve said previously on this blog, finishing the first draft of anything is when the writing process really starts in earnest. The analogy I use is of making a sculpture – redrafting is all about chiselling out the finer details and getting rid of the excess stone.

Part of what makes a novel flow are the words around the dialogue, namely the dialogue tags. “He said, she said.” Not, I hasten to add: “she cried, he exclaimed, she sobbed, he chided, she opined.” True, this latter, apparently more descriptive kind can be used occasionally, but seeing a dialogue exchange full of tags other than the basic “said” means that you’re likely not doing your job properly. The dialogue itself should be capable of carrying the emotion. If it isn’t, then it needs amending. If it is, then doubling things up with flowery dialogue tags over-eggs the pudding.

But there’s another aspect to dialogue tags that also helps the pace of conversation – the question of whether they’re even necessary in the first place. Have a look at the books of your favourite authors, and you’ll probably see that any dialogue exchanges have few tags or no tags at all after it’s been initially established who’s speaking to who. When there’s no ambiguity for the reader in this regard, dialogue tags become another superfluous element, and an avalanche of “he said, she said” tags can be nearly as distracting in practice as the more descriptive kind.

It’s easy to overuse dialogue tags, thinking that changing up the flow of dialogue is a good thing. I used to do it all the time. And even though I now know not to, my initial drafts of anything are still chock-heavy with extraneous material. The goal of editing is to get rid of as much of that fat as possible, but it takes a number of passes. I should know, I’m still doing it. I spent the early evening nuking a load of dialogue tags that weren’t necessary yet were still in my novel, despite having read the thing tens of times before.

But just a small number of changes in this area can really benefit your writing as a whole, and it has certainly made my stuff flow more smoothly. He says.

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