Dealing with “he said” and “she said”

By Maeve Maddox

I once had a high school English teacher who encouraged her students to use as many synonyms for “said” as possible, for example: “he gasped,” “she grumbled,” and “they snorted.” Maybe she was just trying to get us to stretch our vocabularies.

These days, writers prefer the simple word “said,” feeling that its more colorful synonyms tend to distract the reader. There are, of course, exceptions. If a character is asking a question, a word like “asked” is a more logical choice. An occasional “shouted” or “screamed” is also permissible in moments of extreme duress for the characters.

Sometimes, however, even the “he said’s” can slow conversational flow.

I’m presently revising a mystery novel, deleting every unnecessary word I find.

Here are some of the revisions I’ve made to get rid of speech attributions that are not absolutely necessary.

Example one:

“Hello again, Miss Dunbar,” he said, motioning for her to sit. “I’m afraid you’re not having a very pleasant holiday.“

“People do seem to be dying in my vicinity,” she said.

REVISION:

“Hello again, Miss Dunbar. I’m afraid you’re not having a very pleasant holiday.” He motioned for her to sit.

“People do seem to be dying in my vicinity.”

Since only two people are in the room, attributions are unnecessary. I get rid of the first “said” by rearranging the sentence, allowing the man’s gesture to identify him as the speaker. The second “said” is unnecessary because only two people are present.

Example two:

“We’ve found the murder weapon, Sir,” the policeman said, holding out what he was carrying on a towel.

Sallie looked at the object in bewilderment. “It looks like a flute,” she said.

“It is a flute,” Dave said. “A flute that shoots .22 caliber bullets.”

REVISION:

“We’ve found the murder weapon, Sir.” The officer was carrying something on a towel.

Sallie looked at the object in bewilderment. “It looks like a flute.”

“It is a flute,” Dave said. “A flute that shoots .22 caliber bullets.”

I get rid of the first two “said’s” by letting gestures identify the speakers. I keep the third attribution to make clear which of the three men present is speaking.

Sometimes a character thinks something without saying it aloud.

Example Three:

The policeman waited for Sallie to get onto the escalator in front of him. “So I can’t make a break for it,” Sallie thought.

REVISION:

The policeman waited for Sallie to get onto the escalator in front of him. So I can’t make a break for it.

I get rid of “Sallie thought” by typing the thought itself in italics. The scene is being narrated from Sallie’s point of view.

REMINDER: This is not a matter to worry about as you write the first, or even second, draft of your novel. Throw in all the “said’s” and “snorted’s” you like. Save the pruning for the final revision.

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9 Responses to “Dealing with “he said” and “she said””

  • Roshawn

    Right on time.

    I’m not a big fan of writing “he said,” “she said” all the time. I especially find it difficult to do when dialogue is between a group of people.

    I’ll remember this tip.

    Thanks again, Maeve.

  • April

    I agree … it can be hard to do away with “he said” and “she said,” but too many of them are tiring.

    Thanks!

  • NMA

    I like your revisions. I know that I personally get annoyed when I read “he said” “she said” over and over. I love a good synonym!

  • reader

    But, on the other hand, “said” is much better than the thesaurus of words beginning writers throw into fiction as a means of avoiding “said.”

    “Are you looking at my breasts,” she tittered.

  • Jonathan

    Hi there. i am trying to write a novel. it will be my first book. i have had this idea for a while now but i finally got down to trying it. i have always had a trouble with the whole “he said” “she said” topic. thanks to those tips i will be able to write a little bit better. I have never written a book in my life and my grammar is not very good. is there any other tips you can give me?

    thanks
    Jonathan

  • Maeve

    Jonathan,
    Glad you found this helpful. Browse the DWT archives for other articles that may be of use.

    You may want to look in on the DWT Forum and exchange ideas with other budding novelists on a regular basis.

    btw – “is there any other tips you can give me?” Beware of “there is” and “there are” constructions. They signal a delayed subject so be sure the “is” or the “are” agrees with the subject. In your sentence the subject is “tips” so the verb must be plural. “Are there any other tips you can give me?”

    I’ll look for you in the Forum.:-)

  • Toke Bernbole

    Hey thanks a lot for this and a lot of other stuff I have come across on here. I found I was adding the extra he/she said followed by the characters actions. Just taking out the said made it flow much nicer. Thinking of books I have read; I can remember at times being confused by dialogue and greatly fear the same in my work.

  • elizabeth

    Nicely ‘said’, lol.

    I thought all of the revisions were dead on with the following exception;

    “We’ve found the murder weapon, Sir,” the policeman said, holding out what he was carrying on a towel.

    You changed it to this, (“We’ve found the murder weapon, Sir.” The officer was carrying something on a towel.) which I found awkward.

    To me, the flow would be better preserved if you kept closer to the original. I would suggest this – “We’ve found the murder weapon, Sir.” The officer held out an object that was loosely wrapped in a towel.

  • Maddie

    No offence, but I thought your first two examples sounded more fluid before you edited them. Also I quiet like vocabulary instead of this simple “he said; she said” business. I thing it takes away from the emotion.

    ex.
    Josh smiled at Tony, “That’s a great idea Tony.”

    vs.

    “That’s a great idea Tony.” mocked Josh as he smiled at Tony.

    In the first it seems as though Josh likes the idea, but in the second it shows that Josh actually being sarcastic .

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