What’s Wrong with `Said’? – Writing Dialogue Effectively


So every writer will eventually come across articles listing all the alternatives to using she said’ or ‘he said’ when writing dialogue. While these lists are very useful there’s always the danger that people take it too far and just refuse to use the word ‘said’ altogether instead replacing it with `she murmoured’, ‘he wailed’ and numerous other more descriptive words than ‘said’. So why do people fear and avoid this simple word so much:

The Problem With `She said/He said’

The word said is a simple word that tells you that someone is speaking and that’s it. It’s functional. It’s nearly always attached with detail about who is speaking but if you constantly write ‘she said’, ‘he said’ it can be too bland and too functional and means that you miss out on giving more description in your writing and setting more of a scene during the dialogue scene. For example look at these two pieces:

Example 1

“Hi,” she said.
“Hello,” he said.
“My name is Jane,” she said.
“I’m Tarzan,” he said.

When you read this example it immediately feels lacking in something and a bit bland. The dialogue is there but there’s nothing much else and that’s why people will actively discourage you from using ‘said’ repeatedly. Using it too much here makes the dialogue feel devoid of any character or description.

Example 2

“Hi,” she iterated.
“Hello,” he murmoured.
“My name is Jane,” she admitted.
“I’m Tarzan,” he answered.

Here it’s gone too far in the opposite direction and this can also be at bit too much. This second example doesn’t read welL. There are too many alternatives and they seem forced. We don’t get a sense of scene or character much at all.

Sometimes you can get around using ‘said’ too much by adding movement or description which breaks up the dialogue but this can also be done too much. For example look at this one:

Example 3

Jane  walking towards him, playing with her hair nervously.
“Hello,” he replied, brushing back his hair with one hand and eating a banana in the other.
She outstretched her hand, which he looked at strangely, as if she’d taken off all her clothes and danced around.
“My name is Jane,” she told him, still holding out her hand and smiling at him.
“My name is Tarzan,” he said tapping his chest with his hand.

This example is overkill. We’ve put far too much action in this one and it actually interferes with the scene and the dialogue because it dominates so much One or two of these descriptions of movement might have been fine for the scene but beware of putting too many  in so that your readers don’t get lost in it.

In Defense of ‘Said’

Many people may disagree with this but sometimes using ‘said’ is fine and in some cases the simpler, functional dialogue works. As with everything in creative writing, ‘said’ is dependent on the overall scene, tone and style. Sometimes it works. Look at these two sentences separate from the whole piece of dialogue:

Example 4

“My name is Jane,” she said.
“I’m Tarzan,” he said.

They’re not bad as they are. They express a sort of simplicity in the exchange that I think works. Taking out the other two lines of ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello feels like it improves the dialogue. It still feels like it needs more though but there’s a reason for that:

Dialogue Rarely Works Alone

What is dialogue in a novel? It’s a conversation yes, but it’s also part of a scene with characters and a story to convey. Dialogue needs to be integrated with the rest of the scene. It needs to be part of the story not a way to tell the whole story. The way this is achieved is by writing dialogue with some description of the characters, the scene around them, their movements and an awareness of the overall scene. For example look at that dialogue written with more of the scene.

Example 5

He stood in front of her wearing just a loincloth. It was unbelievably humid but he didn’t even seem to notice the heat of the jungle.
“My name is Jane,” she said.
“I’m Tarzan.”

This feels like more of a scene and the simple she said gives less away about Jane’s state of mind and so keeps a sense of mystery that saying ‘she murmoured’ or ‘she purred’ or something similar just wouldn’t. Remember that each time you use ‘said’ you give very little away but also each time you use an alternative to ‘said’ it needs to convey the mood of the scene and tone of the character. Look at these examples and how different a perspective they give you of the character:

Further Examples

“I’m Tarzan,” he groaned.
“I’m Tarzan,” he roared.
“I’m Tarzan,” he whispered.
“I’m Tarzan,” he hissed.
“I’m Tarzan,” he said, winking .
“I’m er- Tarzan,”
“I’m…,” he shuffled nervously, “Tarzan”
“I’m Tarzan,” he said.
“I’m Tarzan.”
“I am Tarzaaan!”

Each one of these conveys different sounds and different moods making the same character seem like a totally different person.This is where word choice makes a big difference. This is the same piece of dialogue written in ten different ways and each of them gives you a different impression. Personally I prefer the last two because I like stark , emotive writing rather than very descriptive, literary writing but that’s really just about personal choice. If you notice, the word ‘said’ appears here twice but both are examples that could work with different scenes.

So the point here really, is that sometimes ‘said’ does work. Sometimes it’s functional and simple enough to convey just what you need in the scene but take care not to keep repeating it or your writing might sound too repetitive. Trying to avoid ‘said’ altogether is not necessarily the best strategy and in early drafts you might just use said repeatedly just to get the scene down. I do this a lot. I write a lot of dialogue in my longer stories and I write the scenes very quickly so I just want to get it down and move on to the next part. I do alter it a little if I think I need to write it differently but often I leave those problems for later when I’m rewriting. If I’m typing it up (when its written in pen – which it often is) I will naturally notice these problems when I’m typing anyway, so for me I just want the scene down and don’t need to worry about the dialogue problems because I’ll fix them later.

Some people prefer doing it right the first time and thinking over each word as they write. That’s fine too. Not everyone has the same method of writing. Usually people fit into either the category of a ‘speedy, messy writer who is fixing it later’ (Me) or ‘a detailed, articulate writer who writes slowly and carefully’. Both types get the story written so it doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it, whichever way that you want to write it. Listen to advice about not repeating ‘said’ too much from other writers but don’t fear using it or avoid it altogether. ‘Said’ has a place in creative writing just like every other word. It’s how you use it. No matter how experienced someone is when they are giving you feedback, if it feels wrong to you, go with your instinct. Take their advice on board. They are only trying to help after, all but stick with what you feel is right for your story.


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4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with `Said’? – Writing Dialogue Effectively

  1. I use the he said, she said method with no apologies. However, after a few exchanges the characters will do something to break up the monotony. I use this method for no other reason than to not leave the reader guessing. When I come across he said, she said dialogue I normally don’t read the who said, but check it just to be sure I’m tracking the conversation correctly.
    This is a good topic.

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