Are You Using “Said” Too Frequently? Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Beats Explained

 

Two women talking on phones.

How often can you use the word “said” in one page?

Probably more than you think.

Yes, you’ve been told (by tutors, your writing group, or beta readers) to watch out for words that occur too frequently. But “said” isn’t one you need to worry about.

The word “said” can crop up quite a lot and go almost unnoticed. As a reader, you barely notice it; as a writer, it’s more obvious (since you write far more slowly than you can read, and you may be pausing to think through the dialogue as you craft it).

In fact, it’s much more problematic to keep finding alternatives for “said” in an attempt to make things more interesting. These do draw attention to themselves. They also risk becoming a bit silly:

“Sophie!” he exclaimed.

“What is it, John?” she demanded.

“You look stunning today,” he opined.

Of course, having “he said” or “she said” after every piece of dialogue will indeed start to grate on the reader. In this post, I’ll be giving you some alternatives – and explaining how to use each effectively.

First, we need to define a couple of terms: dialogue tag and dialogue beat.

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What is a Scene? Understanding and Using the Basic Unit of Story Structure

what-is-a-scene

Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. When you plan (if you plan!), you’re thinking in scenes: individual little chunks of story that build on one another as they work towards the conclusion.

Like me, you probably feel you have an intuitive grasp of what a “scene” is in a short story or novel. If you feel your scenes aren’t quite working, though, or if you struggle to outline your scenes, thinking through what exactly a scene is might help.

Let’s take a quick look at a few definitions:

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward.

Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner (pg 40, 2006 edition)

By “scene” we mean here all that is included in an unbroken flow of action from one incident in time to another […] The action within a scene is ‘unbroken’ in the sense that it does not include a major time lapse or a leap from one setting to another – though the characters may, of course, walk or ride from one place to another without breaking the scene, the camera, so to speak, dollying after them.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner (pg 59, 1991 edition)

For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over.

What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan, TimothyHallinan.com

Some writers like to think of scenes as chapters, starting a new chapter for each new scene. There’s no reason you can’t do that – but chapters play a different role.

I sometimes end chapters mid-scene (so there’s a cliffhanger) and I only switch viewpoints when I switch chapters, even if one chapter contains multiple scenes. That’s a personal preference – yours might be different.

There’s never going to be a perfect definition of “a scene” that works for every circumstance, so don’t get too caught up in trying to decide whether a small time gap or a change of location definitely means it’s a “new” scene. If it feels to you like the same scene, treat it that way.

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Practical Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in Fiction

write-time

Whether you’re writing a short story or an epic novel series, fictional time is going to pass during it.

Obviously enough, fictional time is not the same thing as real time (unless you’re watching 24). Your novel might take four hours to read – and cover events that take place over the course of two years.

In fact, there’s another type of time that’s easy to forget here: writing time.

That novel that takes four hours to read could take a year or more to write.

This means that before you think about how to show time passing during the story, you need one tool firmly in place.

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Split Narratives: Dividing Your Story Between Two or More Narrators

split-narratives

Image from Flickr by dadblunders.

There are several perfectly good ways to structure a story in terms of viewpoint, but (probably) the more common ones are:

  • A single first-person narrator, as in Florence and Giles or 600 Hours of Edward.
  • A main third-person narrator plus occasional omniscient narration, as in Harry Potter.
  • Several third-person narrators, as in The Song of Ice and Fire series, some getting considerably more “screen time” than others.

In this post, I want to think about stories where the narrative is split pretty much equally between two characters.

I’ve come across more books like this in recent years and wonder if it’s becoming a more popular viewpoint choice. (I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this in the comments!)

Here are some examples of books that are structured in this way:

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – the narrative is divided between two first-person narrators; the identity of one of these is concealed, though hinted at.

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – a particularly interesting one as the first book has one first-person narrator, the second book has two, and the third book has three.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) with three first-person narrators, Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, all with a different voice.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – with two first-person narrators, their narratives combining to give two sides of the story.

Those are all first person examples. Of course there are plenty of third-person narratives split between multiple viewpoint characters, but they tend to be more likely to give some viewpoints considerably more screentime than others, and/or segue into an omniscient perspective.

A good third-person example that works in a similar way to the first person ones above is my friend Nick Bryan’s Hobson & Choi series, where the third-person limited viewpoint switches back and forth between the two titular characters.

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