I’ve been contemplating how to approach this issue of dialogue tags,since it’s not just a simple issue of the “said” tag. So let’s break this discussion down a bit.
A lot of people hate the ‘said’ tag, and many will go out of their way to avoid using it. I think this is an unfortunate choice, because I believe that ‘said’ is not all together evil. It has its place and use, the problem is that too many writers depend on it too much, and would much rather settle for a regular “he said” “she said” prattling between characters.
So what’s so wrong with “he said” “She said” as tags? Oh, there are so many ways to create trouble with this tag.
Say you have more than one male or female participant in a conversation – how do you tell the multiple conversants apart? One easy solution could be to not have all of them involved in the conversation at once, but what if they’re still in the scene? Your other characters could easily be doing things in the background while a conversation is taking place. Maybe one of your conversing characters notices one of your background characters doing something. Times like that are great opportunities to break up the conversation to give the reader a view of what’s going on around your chattering characters. As I discussed in the last post, there’s nothing more frustrating for a reader than an entire scene that’s just chatting.
Maybe switch the POV of the story? It’s not exactly a simple fix that will magically solve all of your problems, as it only eliminates the confusion of possibly one of the speakers. It also opens up a possible flood gate to other bad dialogue practises, like referring to a character as “the Blond one” or “the Brunette.” I can already tell you that’s the quickest way to get laughed at.
A useful thing to do is to remind readers who is in the conversation. Even in the middle of an exchange, it’s nice to be reminded of the conversation participants’ names, and it helps the reader remember who is saying what. Some more talented writers are able to eliminate the tags altogether, but even those writers know that occasionally, readers need reminding who is saying what in the conversation even if we think we’re smart enough to follow the conversation.
When it’s just two people it’s not so challenging; when you throw three into the mix, that’s when it starts getting challenging for readers to remember who is saying what. Real world conversations don’t follow predicable patters that writer’s can magically emulate, since each person in a conversation probably has something different at stake in the conversation or has a different role in the conversation.
Let’s look at some hypothetical situations for three ambiguous characters called Person A, Person B and Person C. Person C is really trying to engage Person A but Person B keeps on injecting themselves into the conversation and Person A is really shy and doesn’t like having conversations with people; or Person B really doesn’t want to talk to Person B or A, but Person A is in a particularly chatty mood and Person C insists on trying to engage B despite Person B’s refusal to talk to Person C. The combinations and levels of participation vary in the conversation, so falling back on “he said” “she said” can often cause confusion and ambiguity, where the author should be striving for more clarity.
I’m not saying that writers should restrict themselves to two speakers in a scene, because there can be vagueness and confusion even with two speakers. What I am saying is that authors should always strive for clarity in dialogue, and “he said” “she said” very often does not offer any clarity in a scene.