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Monday, April 25

He Said, She Said: Formatting Dialogue in Fiction

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Which is "right?" Bob said, or said Bob? Should you use one other the other. There is the one mindset that you should always use Bob said. Because you wouldn't say "Ran Bob up a hill." But I checked with my linguist buddy, and says there's nothing grammatically wrong with saying that. It just depends on which verb noun pairs you use that determines how "odd" it sounds to you. "Get thee to a nunnery" sound just fine, right?

It probably won't come as any surprise that I am of the other mindset that thinks you should use whatever works best for the sentence. Because sometimes said Bob just flows better, especially if you have multiple speakers and you need to tag frequently to keep them all straight.
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 just feels better at the end.

(Here's more on punctuating dialogue)

Flipping them back and forth also helps put the focus where it needs to go. Sometimes you want the name close to the dialogue to be clear on who is speaking. Other times, you want to closer to the action or thought that comes after speech.
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 just wouldn't work, because by the time you got to the whispered part, the line is already over. Putting it closer to the actual 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.

When in doubt, try both and listen to how they each sound.
"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 emphasis 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 kinda catches on at Sally and has a weird alliteration thing going. Said Jane doesn't have the same rhythm.

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

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

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 :)