Everyone has seen walls of dialog – passages in books in which the dialog, scriptlike, swaps from one character to another, fast-firing, no description or narrative in between. In the hands of  a master, this works pretty well. Since most of us are not masters, the “said” was invented. “I have a dolly just like that one,” the little girl said. You don’t even see the word, some writing teachers say. It’s invisible.

Well, whoever decided that the word “said” and its derivatives were invisible was NOT CORRECT. Humans are creatures who naturally create and seek patterns. The writer creates an unintended pattern by injecting “said” in every conversational switch. The reader – eventually – sees that pattern. Voila – “said” is no longer invisible.

Also, people don’t just talk during conversations. They nervously fiddle with keys, or they wolf down lunch, speaking between bites, or they keep the gun steady, or they gently stroke her arm, trailing fingers from shoulder to wrist.

So, fine. Use a different way to say “said.” Shot, or retorted, or quipped. We humans are creatures of novelty. When writing, our own habits bore us. But simply finding alternative ways to say “said” is, in general, lazy writing. “Said,” the primitive writer says to himself, “is just too dry, too dull, too repetitive. How about a nice ‘shot’ or ‘quipped’ or ‘laughed’ or ‘burbled’ or ‘murmured’?”

The primitive editor reaches for his club and beats the writer to death.

Beats solve this problem by seamlessly indicating WHO is saying something while also describing actions simultaneous with dialog. They are simply short sentences interjected into a passage of dialog that describe action, mood, thought, and other character-specific things that are going on during conversation.

“But ‘said’ is perfectly effective for indicating the speaker,” says the primitive writer.

The primitive editor examines the club, then eyes the writer. “Just no.” Tightly gripping the handle, he swings.


Using beats also helps eliminate wordiness. When you use the word “said,” you are very often interjecting needless words, and that slows down and muddles your writing.

“Listen, copper,” said the gangster. He drew his gun. “I ain’t telling you nothing, so beat it. Scram. Make for the door.”

Or is it better thus: “Listen, copper.” The gangster drew his gun. “I ain’t telling you nothing, so beat it. Scram. Make for the door.”

The second example reads faster. In it, only the gangster is repetitive – and you don’t use the word “said”.

But, the primitive writer expounds, beating his chest in despair, why can’t the gangster snarl or spit or growl his words?

Okay. Try it. Right now. Try laughing out a few words. Can you do it? How about snarling some words? Spitting them – all of them – out?

I thought not. That’s because most of these substitutes for the tired old “said” are actions, not attributions. When used with dialog, it’s as if the writer is forcing action on characters who are just trying to communicate, for pete’s sake. “Listen, copper.” The gangster spat. “I ain’t telling you nothing, so beat it.”

Or “Oh, Tom.” Lady Spencer giggled, fluttering her fan. “You say the silliest things.” She’s not giggling out those words – she’d look like a fool. Or more foolish, as the case may be. But the beat – the sentence between the two statements – makes the tone of her words as well as the action of giggling very clear, without delving into the ridiculous image of giggling words without looking fake.

So, the lesson:

* Sometimes “said” is not invisible.

*  Sometimes “said” is not descriptive enough, either – but that does not mean you should hit the thesaurus.

*  In long dialectic passages, you may have to clarify which character is speaking.

*  All these problems can be solved by the judicious insertion of beats, or short action sentences, at the beginning, middle, or end of your character’s dialog lines.

Is that all? Nope, never that simple. You can’t use a beat every single time. That, too, is a pattern, and it can put your reader to sleep, entrancing without enchanting. Instead, shake it up a little.

*  When possible, use no appellation at all for your dialog.

*  When not, use a beat.

*  When you’ve used too many beats, go ahead and throw in a “said” or two. Used sparingly, they are indeed invisible.

If you use a lot of beats, you slow down the action carried by the dialog. This may be desirable, as in a love scene or the buildup of emotional tension. Using very few beats along with short, snappy dialog speeds up action and ratchets up a different kind of tension; one of my favorite examples of this is a scene from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, in which Tom fights a new boy. (Scroll to about halfway down the page.)

Lastly, as you can see in the Tom Sawyer passage, if you’ve written your dialog well, you often need no indication as to who is talking. “You want fries with that?”

Keep in mind: using the right dialog appellation (said, a beat, or none) is an art, not a science. You won’t figure it out overnight. It takes practice.

Challenge: Write or rewrite a short passage of dialog, using a mixture of no appellation, beats, and saids to note who is talking. TRY TO WRITE THE DIALOG SO THAT IT’S CLEAR WHO IS TALKING regardless of which technique you are using, and use both beats and saids sparingly. One great trick is to ensure the characters’ speech pattern differs according to social class, ethnic origin, age, educational level, etc. For instance, a maid might speak with short words and simple sentences and sprinkle her speech with “my lady” and “mum”. If you’re not certain how their speech patterns might differ, review character background. If you’re still not certain, you may have to flesh out your character a little more. 300 words.

Note: This is easier with only two characters. More than that, and things get complicated.

Further study: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, Chapter 8.

Also, examine the structure of dialog in your favorite books. Note where the author uses these techniques, and think about how you could use them yourself.


Previous installments in the series:

Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance

Part 7: Nine-and-Sixty Ways: When Writing Advice Conflicts

Part 8: Characterization 101: Characterizing Through Dialog

Part 9: Doing Dialect Right

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