Those old he saids and she saids

writers as thieves


Writers are shoplifters.

At least the good ones are.

They steal whatever they can from whomever they can if it helps them get words on paper better.

However, the writing thief faces problems. What items should he purloin and how will he use them when he has them in his possession?

Attributions are a good case in point.

Authors fall into two attribution camps.

One camp believes the words he said and she said are invisible tags readers pass over without noticing them.  They serve the purpose of adding clarity to the passage, to allow the reader to keep her place in the dialogue without thinking about which character is speaking.

The members of this group also agree almost universally that he said and she said are the only tags a person should use and anything beyond them is superfluous.

How about the other camp?

The authors in that group despise attribution tags and avoid them like the plague.

I mentioned a few days ago a writers conference I attended last weekend. During a presentation, husband and wife authors Caryl and Ron McAdoo  mentioned that they have a rule that they never use more than two attribution tags PER BOOK.

See what I mean?

I’m talking dyed-in-wool attribution haters here.

For Ron and Caryl the point is that the better approach is for the writer to clarify the passage so that the reader doesn’t need tags to know who is speaking. Also they said attribution tags jimmy with point of view.

I’m in Camp One on this one, and I’ll add one other thing.

Now that I am narrating audiobooks, mine and those of others, I find attribution tags helpful.  For me they don’t interrupt the flow of the story, and they make it much easier for a narrator to distinguish between characters without having to employ extreme vocal shifts.

Plus, I love Robert B. Parker books, and he includes about a dozen he saids and she saids on every page.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I like simple attribution. It keeps the story flowing. Some, like Ron and Caryl, prefer action. Instead of “George said,” simply say, “George sat the glass on the table and glanced out the window.” That’s well and good, and it works beautifully. But I prefer to keep the flow of the story moving forward with those invisible words: he said and she said.

  • Bert Carson

    Joe Mantegna, narrating Spenser, does the he said she said thing the way Parker meant it to be done and it is beautiful.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Bert, you know who is talking and are never aware that he said or she said was ever said.

  • You left out the third group, the one’s whose attributions include ‘whispered,’ ‘hissed,’ and ‘exclaimed.’ And even more colorful.

    I fall into the no attributions camp in general, but use them when it is necessary to follow Rule #1 of Writing: Don’t confuse the READER.

    Also part of Rule #1 is, if you write in a genre with conventions, and don’t follow the conventions, you’d better 1) not confuse the reader, and 2) have a good reason not to follow the conventions (ie, do it on purpose).

    Everything in moderation. Use what appeals to you as a writer – there will be plenty of people who have no trouble following you.

    That said, using few attributions requires effort and care – otherwise you end up over-describing behavior or body parts instead. There is a different level of craft involved – each writer will decide if the effort is useful or worth the results.

    Attributions might be something to revisit if you are generally unhappy with your writing/sales – just put it on the To Do list somewhere, and prioritize as you see fit. There is such an amazing variety of ways to do most writing – making silly rules for other people (except Rule #1 – I stand by that) is a waste of time. (But if it makes you happy…)

    • Alicia, actually I did cover your group 3 (“The members of this group also agree almost universally that he said and she said are the only tags a person should use and anything beyond them is superfluous.”)
      And I don’t think the goal of almost no attributions strengthens writing. If the tags really are invisible they aren’t bothering readers. The only people who see them are authors who go looking for them.
      Thanks for the comment.

  • msl_007

    I hate the overuse of said. If it’s used too much, it distracts me, unlike the average reader, I know. I’ve put down many a book that only uses said, so there’s room for all kinds of writing, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be standards followed.

    There is a safe list of words that don’t bother me, so if one of the following is appropriate to break up the constant dis-flow of said, I appreciate the author more for using it. Moderation is the key in all things.


    Any of these can be overused, of course, though the first three are the safest in my opinion since they hardly bother me unless used too much in one passage. Then there are more colorful words that should be used with care … if used at all, such as hiss, exclaim, and so forth.

    Other times a dialog tag isn’t a tag at all. “I love you,” I smiled… is incorrect. “I love you.” I smiled … is correct.

    Using no tag is OK but once again can be overdone if the reader is confused who is talking. The occasional tag of some sort keeps things flowing for me, since even if the author thinks it’s clear who is speaking, not every reader will think so. Distraction levels differ.

    Though it would be extra work, I wonder if adding simple said tags for audio books would allow for the best of both worlds.

    • As to the last question you raise about adding simple said tags for audiobooks, the deal is that the narrator can only read what is on the page. If he strays from the text, then the audio file will not sync up with the eBook text for purposes of Whispersync for Voice. So the narrator has his hands tied, and the author would be the one to add the simple tags to the dialog to the eBook version before the narrator began work on the project.

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