Monday, September 17, 2018

Formatting Dialogue in Fiction: He Said, She Said

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dialogue is more than just writing down what your characters say--it's also using the correct punctuation and structure so readers understand who's speaking and how. 

I once had a debate with someone over the proper structure of a dialogue tag. She felt that you should always write "said Bob," because you wouldn't say "Ran Bob up a hill." I felt it could go either way. "Get thee to a nunnery" sound fine, right?

So, which is correct: "Bob said," or "said Bob?"

I checked with my linguist expert, and she says there's nothing grammatically wrong with "Bob said." Which verb-noun pairs you use determines how odd it sounds to you.

Even if it breaks a rule, I tend to lean toward doing whatever works best for the sentence. We move verbs around for a certain flow, and sometimes "said Bob" just sounds better than "Bob said," especially if you have multiple speakers and you need to tag frequently to keep them all straight. For example:
Jane dug into the dirt under the old Buick's rear bumper. "Found another one."
"How many does that make?" Bob asked.
"Looks like twenty-three."
"All nine mil?" said Sally. "Cause I found a bunch of twenty-twos in the glove box."
"Bob asked" here works to quickly establish who Jane is talking to. But "said Sally" works because it rolls off the tongue better than Sally said. The longest syllable flows smoother at the end of the sentence to my ear.

(Here's more on punctuating dialogue)

Flipping the "said" tag before and after the name also helps put the focus where it needs to go. Sometimes you want the name close to the dialogue to make it clear who's speaking. Other times, you want it closer to the action or thought that comes after speech. For example:
Jane dumped the bullets they'd scavenged all afternoon onto the table, then stalked out of the room.
"Do you think she knows?" whispered Sally.
"Yeah," Jane called back. "She knows."
To me, saying "Sally whispered" here wouldn't work as well, because by the time you got to the whispered part, the line is already over. Putting it closer to the dialogue makes it easier to show how she spoke. I also think having two "X said Y said" right after each other has a more static rhythm and gives the dialogue a list-like sound.

(Here's more on the rhythm of the words in dialogue) 

When in doubt, try both and listen to how each one sounds:
"I should leave you two for the zombies," Jane said, pointing the Sig Sauer at them.
"I should leave you two for the zombies," said Jane, pointing the Sig Sauer at them.
To me, "said Jane" works better here, because the punch is in the gun, not the text, so putting Jane closest to the gun emphasizes that.

(Here's more on where to put dialogue tags)

It also depends on what else is in the sentence.
"I should leave you for the zombies," Jane said, pointing the gun at Sally.
"I should leave you for the zombies," said Jane, pointing the gun at Sally.
In this case, "Jane said" catches on "at Sally" and has a weird alliteration thing going. "Said Jane" doesn't have the same rhythm, and it flows just a bit better.

These are all minor tweaks to be sure, but often it's the minor tweaks that turn good writing into great writing.  

Trust your ear. If the tag sounds off, it probably is. If it flows well, then you're golden.

Do you have a preference or do you write what sounds better to your ear?

*Originally published in April 2011. Hope you enjoyed the update.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I just thought I'd delurk and say hi! And thanks for all the amazing articles. :) They really do help out a lot, and get me to think more critically about what I write. :)

  2. Interesting! I usually read my dialogue out loud (with tags) to see if it works, but I never actually broke it down that way before and analyzed why said Bob sounded better then Bob said, or vice versa. Very cool!

  3. I use '"Dialogue," Bob said' exclusively. For some reason, I've always thought using 'said Bob' sounds old-fashione. It might be because I got used to seeing it in 'older' books, but now I can't use it without thinking that I'm trying to mimick the style of a 1960's children's novel. You're right though, it does help to vary the dialogue without getting into the dreaded 'Bob pontificated wildly' territory.

    Here's another dialogue issue that might be worth bringing up someday:

    "Yeah," Jane called back. "She knows."

    I do this a lot, usually to indicate brief pauses in dialogue or to break up long sections of it. I have a nagging feeling that I'm doing it too much, actually, but it's something that seems to work well for me. It would be interesting to get your take on it.

  4. Welcome Sumayyah :)

    Sean, I use that structure all the time, especially if someone has a long bit of dialog. You tag it right at the start so the reader knows who's speaking, then you can let them ramble a bit. It's also great for that dramatic pause.

    If you feel that you're using it too much, trust your instincts and fix the ones that feel unnecessary. If it feels wrong, it usually is. It wouldn't be nagging you otherwise :)

    And that is a good thing to talk about tomorrow :) Trusting our instincts.

  5. @ Sean, I know one author who uses said Bob a lot, if not in the entirety of her novel - Rowling! Lol Yeah, that's her thing. It's why I asked the question, because I live in England and most writers here are obsessed with said Bob and not Bob said.

    I'm glad Janice wrote this article. My mind's at ease now. Thanks!

  6. Cool post. I tend to use whatever I find sounds best for the sentence, but I do have a slight preference for "said Bob."

    I actually think it's a bit of a cultural thing, as Glen indicated. I'm Canadian and I've always read quite a few British authors.

  7. Reading aloud and listening to what you've written is the best thing to do.

    Thanks for this pithy post to remind me about using dialogue. I hadn't thought that much about "said Bob" versus "Bob said," but the way you explain it is perfectly exact.
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

  8. I just posted a dialogue entry today as well! Never tire of reading about this b/c it's always needed. I love how you put it. Trust your ear :D

  9. This is something I've been struggling with in my own writing. Thank you so much for clearing up the fact that it really depends on the phrasing of the surrounding text.

  10. Kathleen: Now I have an urge to look up some non-US books and see what they do :)

    Ann: Thanks!

    Lori: Great minds think alike! It can take time to develop that writer's ear, but whenever I'm unsure, I just listen to what sounds best. More times than not it's the right way to go.

    S.F. Roney: Happy to help :)

  11. Some of it is pacing—a hard boiled detective series I read always uses “bob said.” It gives the narrative a clipper cadence that fits the style and atmosphere of the story, particularly since the tags don’t have stage directions attached to them.

    1. Excellent point. Different voices will also affect how you'd write the tags.

  12. I definitely do it by ear. It also depends on the character who's speaking. I think the "Bob said" version works especially well for characters who are quick or impatient. "Said Bob" has a more laidback feel to it.

  13. I have a tendency to use "said Jane" in most cases, although, using the tag, ask/asked, I usually do it the opposite, "Jane asked." I agree, however, with your logic on the placement of the tag being determined by if the character should be closer to the dialogue or to the action.

    1. Interesting that you have certain orders for different words. It fits though, since they would sound different.

  14. I enjoyed your tips, although I'm a bit surprised by the errors in your article. A few examples you might want to clean up:
    what your characters says (what your characters say or what your character says)
    sound fine (sounds fine)
    So, which is Correct: "Bob said," or "said Bob?" (So, which is correct: "Bob said," or "said Bob"?)
    It just depends on which verb-noun pairs you use that determines how odd it sounds to you. (Awkward, could be rephrased like this: Which verb-noun pairs you use determines how odd it sounds to you.)
    listen to how they each one sounds: (list to how each one sounds)
    Do you have a preference or you write (Do you have a preference or do you write)
    Originally publishing in April 2011. (Originally published in April 2011.)

    1. Eek, thanks for the typo alert :) I was still under conference-fog and didn't proofread carefully enough when I was updating (and ironically, trying to fix awkward prose from the first version). Sorry about that!

    2. I see a typo in my reply - list for listen. :)

    3. Hehe, the little suckers get in everywhere!