Posted On December 12, 2016 by Print This Post

He Said, She Said by Tracy Tappan

What did you say? I said, he said, she said. The most over-used phrase in books! But Tracy Tappan is here to show us a few alternatives that will spiff up your writing.


Then She Said Some More…But Should She Have?

“Becky said that Darren said that Heather said that Mike said that Sue said that Kathy said that Ryan said he wants to go out with you!”

“Ha! Well, you can tell Becky to tell Darren to tell Heather to tell Mike…”

Well, you get the idea.

In the gossip trail, “he said this” and “she said that” is probably impossible to avoid. But what is the rule for using “said” as a dialogue tag in fiction writing? This is a debate I’ve read frequently on author chat boards, lately.

Many authors have heard that the word “said” is all but invisible—it merely confirms who is talking in a scene, and that’s it. Yes, “said” can be a quick, easy way to designate who’s speaking, but, no, using it too much can definitely be a visual annoyance.

So how much is too much? What is the rule for using “said” in fiction writing?

The good news—or bad news—is that there isn’t a hard and fast rule. As with just about anything in writing, the answer is: it depends. Starting from the standpoint that “said” isn’t a freebie word that can be used with invisible abandon, a good general rule would be to enrich your writing using tags other than “said” as often as possible. Dialogue must always fit your scene overall, of course, and there are guidelines to help you navigate the best choice.

Consider emotion, everyday actions, and characterization when deciding how to write who said what.

First, emotion: What is the emotion being conveyed in the scene? Anger, joy, sadness, sensuality—each is depicted not only by what is being said (the telling), but by how the words are spoken (the showing).

If two characters are involved in an angry back-and-forth argument, then a staccato burst of dialogue—where all tags are completely dropped—can be a great way to convey this.

“You called her!”

“The hell if I did.”

“Don’t lie to me! I saw her number on your cell.”

Pause. “What were you doing with my phone?”

“Oh, shut up.”

On the other hand, a scene flavored with poignancy or joy or a profound revelation will generally move at a more leisurely pace. One way beats of dialogue can be slowed is by using literary devices, such as describing the surroundings in between spoken words.

“I’m sorry, but I had to call her.” He turned to stare out his bedroom window. The lone sycamore in his backyard was still heavy with leaves, but their edges were beginning to stain in colors of orange and red. A couple of birds argued with each other from facing branches. If he shouted really loud, maybe he could make the annoying idiots fly away. He tightened his jaw. “She and I had some unfinished business, you know that.”

How you use the surroundings can matter, too. Here, the “lone” tree, plus the fading colors of the leaves can underscore the forlorn feelings of the character.

Second, everyday actions. Use everyday actions instead of dialogue tags. However, how you use them depends on what is more important in the scene: actual content or hidden subtext. Small gestures can be an effective way to convey either.

In my military romantic suspense, BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY, the heroine, Nicole, needs to confess her father’s sordid past to the hero, Eric. For this revelation scene, I put Nicole and Eric in a restaurant, where ordinary actions—setting down a menu, picking up a wine glass, etc.—can be used to tag each speaker without overusing “said.” Since these actions are ordinary, they won’t steal focus from the content—Nicole’s confession. In this case, that’s important, because what Nicole has to say is integral to the storyline.

But what if the content wasn’t as important as the overall feel of the scene? Small, everyday action-tags can again be a wonderful way to add subtext to straightforward dialogue. Do you want to enhance what is being said with a sense of sensuality? The heroine can run her fingers up and down the stem of her wine glass. Does the hero have a case of the nerves? He can keep moving his fork around unnecessarily.

Most readers can relate to making these kinds of gestures when experiencing similar feelings, and so ordinary actions have the added benefit of drawing the reader deeper into the emotional field of the scene.

Third, characterization. Know your characters.

This may sound like an obvious “of course!” part of writing. But I mean really know your characters. Understand the far reaches of their psychology.

Once you’ve done this, your subconscious will inform everything your characters say and do, and then, voilà! All so-called rules don’t really matter anymore because writing will come naturally.

My background in clinical work has admittedly helped me to add depth to my characters, but you don’t need a degree in psychology to create rich, three-dimensional people. You just need time—time for thoughtful reflection.

Put your characters in scenarios that will never end up in your book, and see what they do—imagine her as a child, picture him in his early dating years or at the beginning of his career. Write out a detailed biography before penning the first word of your story—what are your hero’s parents like? What have been the heroine’s challenging life experiences? These are only suggestions; every writer will have a different way of getting to know his or her characters—the main point is, don’t scrimp on this step.

What happens when authors scrimp, and so only know their characters on a surface level? They make the error of “telling” the reader about a character’s life challenge.

Greg refused to go out with Beth a second time. Yeah, his commitment issues getting in the way again, but, oh, well.

So we, the readers, now know that Greg has commitment issues…but what does this mean to us? There is no emotional connection to this issue.

Greg had no problem taking Beth to bed—yeah, no problem at all—but he’d be damned if he was going to be her boyfriend. Been there, done that, got dumped, owned the T-shirt. Pass on round two.

This is a little subtler way of cluing in the reader on what is going on with Greg—the commitment issue isn’t stated outright—but to get to an even deeper level of characterization, sit back in your writer’s chair and ask yourself: if a person has commitment issues, how does he or she act? Or better yet, if MY specific character of Greg has commitment issues, what kind of behaviors will he exhibit? Show these behaviors, and then trust the reader to get it—don’t oversell.

“You called her, Greg!”

“The hell if I did.”

“Don’t lie to me! I saw her number on your cell.”

Crap. He turned toward his closet and raked through his shirts. “It’s not what you think, Beth.”

“I want to talk about this.”

Here Greg’s frustration is made obvious with his internal crap and the “raking” way he’s going through his clothes. But guess what else the author has done, maybe even subconsciously because she knows her character so well? She has shown Greg’s commitment issues by using subtly rejecting body language—Greg turns his back on Beth (and, incidentally, he turned his back on her to look out his bedroom window in the example above, too). By this behavioral “showing,” the author has not only used a multi-layered dialogue tag, but engaged the reader’s emotions.

Yes, we, the readers, are now in the scene. Most of us can probably relate to what Beth is feeling right then—how awful it is to have someone we love turn away from us—and this puts us lockstep in touch with the characters’ emotional experiences. We feel what they feel, and when it comes to romance novels, emotion is the key to creating not just a satisfactory read, but a deeply evocative one.

So while you can enrich your writing by enhancing the emotion of any given scene with the effective pacing of dialogue (staccato or leisurely?) and the use of everyday gestures (straightforward content or subtext?), the bottom line is to know your characters. If you do, you’ll be able to “channel” him or her whenever you write from their POV, and the dialogue will flow and fit naturally. Then no matter what he says or she says, you’ll get the how of it right, and the reader will be taken on an emotional journey she won’t soon forget.


What do you think of using “said” in fiction writing? What are some of your techniques to avoid overusing this dialogue tag?

Join us on Wednesday for Barbara Wallace!


Bio: Tracy Tappan is the #1 Amazon Bestselling author of two highly-acclaimed romance series: The Community (paranormal) and Wings of Gold (military romantic suspense). A military wife to a US Navy helicopter pilot for over twenty-five years, her Wings of Gold novels are based on the real-life stories of naval aviators.

She holds a master’s degree in MFCC (Marriage, Family, Child Counseling), and volunteers for the USO and Wounded Warrior programs. She enjoys a great glass of wine, and talks to her two Labradors like they are humans (admittedly, the wine drinking and the dog talking probably go together). Her website is a fount of information and sexy fun.

You can find her on Facebook and Instagram as “Tracy Tappan Romance Author.”

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14 Responses to “He Said, She Said by Tracy Tappan”

  1. Morning Tracy!

    I do think we use the word “said” a lot less than 20-30 years ago. It seems in a lot of my older books it was a lot more common.

    I do like the layering technique…not only saying the words, but using actions to show how the words are being said. It really does draw you into the story deeper.

    Myself, I always do a search to find those little demons and see if I can use something else instead!

    Thanks Tracy!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | December 12, 2016, 8:34 am
    • We’re always growing and changing as authors, and that’s a good thing! Who knows what we’ll all be doing in another 20 years.
      I use my “go and find” function to hunt out overused demons, too–what a chore that is!

      Posted by Tracy Tappan | December 12, 2016, 11:16 am
  2. I’m a big fan of using beats over tags in dialogue. Not only are they a more original way to attribute speech to a character, they can reveal emotional conditions, too. This technique plays into the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing.

    People are using beats more often now, which I applaud. But I’d much rather see a beat that shows what the character is feeling than one used just to eliminate “said” in the tag. “Kevin tied his shoe.” is fine to attribute speech, but we don’t know anything about how he’s feeling. “A punch in the gut would have hurt Kevin less.” is a lot more revealing.

    Great post.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | December 12, 2016, 8:47 am
    • Beats are essential, absolutely, and I personally think they are one of the trickier writing techniques to pull off. For me, after I’m done writing a book, I put it on a shelf to sit for about 3 months. Then when I go back to it, I can see it with fresh eyes. Only then can I truly tell if I got all the beats right.

      Posted by Tracy Tappan | December 12, 2016, 11:21 am
  3. HI Tracy, Thank you for this post. It gives ideas on writing in depth. I’m a firm believer–coloring outside the lines to express my creativity.
    The boredom of the ordinary will never challenge one’s thought process.


    Posted by C.L. Charlesworth | December 12, 2016, 10:28 am
    • Definitely! I applaud risk-taking in writing, and I myself primarily gravitate toward books that sound innovative. If the attempt at something new didn’t entirely work, I’m okay with it because at least the author was willing to color outside the lines. :o)

      Posted by Tracy Tappan | December 12, 2016, 11:26 am
  4. Thanks, Tracy.

    I like your advice about leaving a book sit for three months before making revisions.

    As a reader, I detest seeing said every few sentences. Likewise with beats such as clearing the throat, tucking a lock of hair behind the ear, and smiling. I find The Emotion Thesaurus a great resource for locating meaningful action beats.

    Posted by Kathy Steinemann | December 12, 2016, 12:19 pm
    • Thanks for the recommendation, Kathy. I will check out the Emotion Thesaurus. Everyone has a different process for getting his or her book to print, and I have always needed that 3-month wait, although it slows down my production considerably, haha! I also take a whole week to go through my manuscript to look for those overused “beat markers” you mentioned. Ugh! Hate that, but very necessary for me to do.

      Posted by Tracy Tappan | December 12, 2016, 3:06 pm
  5. I am an audio book junkie and when authors ONLY use “said” it becomes a distraction. I will often read my dialogue out loud to test how I’m using “said” and often go back and change the dialogue tags to add descriptions or actions. The more I study the craft the harder I am on authros who tell me with adverbs, “she said sadly”..meh if you say so.

    Love the tip on detailed character sketches. If we don’t KNOW our characters, the reader will know it.

    ” trust the reader to get it—don’t oversell.” My favorite nugget out of this article. Thanks Tracy!

    Posted by KR Brorman | December 12, 2016, 7:32 pm
    • I’ve heard that reading your book out loud is a great technique, but have never tried it. I will have to look at giving that a go again…I think the word “said” would really stand out then. Glad you got some nuggets! :o)

      Posted by Tracy Tappan | December 12, 2016, 7:47 pm
  6. I am a reader not an author. I learned from this analysis of the process of writing the story, why some books grab me and I am totally immersed in the flow and others where I am struggling to keep being attentive. Tracy’s books are a delight to read. Now I know why I have to be patient while waiting for the next one.

    Posted by Donna Crites | December 12, 2016, 8:48 pm
    • I am the same way about books–some seem to flow more than others. But, of course, as a writer that means I’m always trying to figure out what magic that author has done to pull it off so beautifully!
      And thanks for your patience, hehe!

      Posted by Tracy Tappan | December 13, 2016, 10:08 am


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