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Writers Workshop > How many times can I say I say?

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message 1: by Haru (new)

Haru Ichiban | 255 comments The other day I was taking a "Look Inside" at that famous novel that recently made it to the TV. I didn't like the way it was written (walls of text, anyone?) but also, the dialogues were kinda like this:

"Hello," Casey said.
"Hey," Peewee said. "How's it going?"
"Nothing much," Casey said. "And you?"
"I am practicing how to eat chewing gum and walk at the same time," Peewee said.

The writing got me a bit... nervous. But I was wondering, how many times can you use words like "I", "you", "he/she", "said". Is there a limit? A dialogue where everything ends like "X said", isn't it a bit tiring?

If I use "say", I try to alternate with other stuff like "tell", "state" or the like. But sometimes you can't avoid stuff like putting "I" four or five times in a couple sentences.

From what I gathered through research, there doesn't seem to be a rule. So... how many times would you need to read this repetition to start annoying you?


message 2: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Murrell | 360 comments I prefer to describe a character's actions in lieu of dialogue tags. This way I'm not repetitive. Occasionally I'll through in a "said." I used to go with dialogue tags a lot more. Many people read right past said and asked and think nothing of it.


message 3: by Wanjiru (new)

Wanjiru Warama (wanjiruwarama) | 193 comments Haru wrote: "The other day I was taking a "Look Inside" at that famous novel that recently made it to the TV. I didn't like the way it was written (walls of text, anyone?) but also, the dialogues were kinda lik..."

What you have shown is a poorly written dialogue. I have heard there are some editors who look at dialogue to evaluate whether they should consider a submission.


message 4: by B.A. (new)

B.A. A. Mealer | 824 comments The ____said does get tiring. Like Phillip wrote, you mix it up with action tags or, if there are only 2 people, leave of the tag altogether. That is an example of poorly written dialogue with boring tags.

What got that book to TV is the story, not the writing. 50 Shades of Grey was poorly written but had a good story. Meanwhile, The Outlander was a great book, but then the last couple of books were so boring I gave up reading the last of the series.

I went back to read one of Nora Roberts first books. It wasn't well written but it did have a good story. We all learn over time and when you are doing a series, make sure those last books are the same quality as the first ones.


message 5: by Magnus (last edited May 21, 2020 01:27AM) (new)

Magnus Stanke (magnus_stanke) | 173 comments In a nutshell my take on this is, if you pay attention to the tags then the dialogue isn't very good.
I also agree with what's been said about the use of action tags. I wholeheartedly disagree with using other verbs that 'to say' to introduce dialogue. If I feel an author tries hard to impress with their available vocabulary of synonyms of the word 'said' I get badly distracted from the writing and tend to put that particular book down. Admittedly, my take on this is much influenced by Elmore Leonard who came up with 10 Rules of Good Writing'. In this context its worth quoting. He said ( ;)):
Point 3 :Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Point 4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.

He probably broke these rules once or twice, but never without a good reason. At the end of the day, if the dialogue is good (and in Leonard's case it was absolutely superb) you don't notice the verb AND you don't need adverbial modifiers. Based on context of the story and the character who is talking, there will be only one correct way of delivering the line (if it was read out) or reading it.
I wish I could write dialogue like that...


message 6: by Haru (new)

Haru Ichiban | 255 comments Thank you very much, everyone! *group hug* I do mix some action tags, but if the dialogue is long (and my stories usually have tons of it), there is a moment where you don't know what else to put. I've also heard of some people who hate the "disembodied dialog bubbles", and I kinda agree, after four or five sentences it gets tiring.

But about only saying 'say' (LOL). For example, this is dialogue from a highly dramatic moment in one of my novels after the killer runs away opening a dimensional portal and everyone is astonished or extremely emotional. Does it sound too distracting, pretentious, or like I'm trying too hard?

“That… that was a trick… He escaped…?” Arnold mutters.
“You… You did it! You saved me!” Caroline exclaims while running to me, her voice a maelstrom of dissonant tones.
“Go home…” I muse.

Oh, and if possible, I'd also want your opinion on the first question, that it seems didn't call anyone's attention: How many times can you use words like "I", "you", "he/she"? Is there a limit?


message 7: by Magnus (last edited May 22, 2020 12:18AM) (new)

Magnus Stanke (magnus_stanke) | 173 comments Hello Haru,
here's my two pennies' worth. Remember, you asked for it ;)))
For my liking, yes, the extract sounds distracting. I'd stumble over the action verbs and wouldn't recover, I don't think. But like I said, because of my reading preferences I'm biased.

Here's a poor attempt to fix it without touching the dialogue.
Arnold was hard to understand. “That… that was a trick… He escaped…?”
Caroline was running towards me, her voice a maelstrom of dissonant tones. “You… You did it! You saved me!”
“Go home…” I said.

The same applies in regards to your other question, and I don't think I'll be telling you something you don't already know. But if you want to hear it again, fair enough, here it comes.
How long is a piece of string? The answer is, there is no answer, or rather there're hundreds, and they can all be equally correct. It's all relative, not absolute. Some of my favourite authors break rules of what's considered normal or acceptable all the time and they make their disgressions work. I was going to quote James Lee Burke, the way he strings together seemingly endless descriptions with the simple connective 'and' - and makes it sound like poetry in the context, but I didn't manage to find a good example.

Then, there's James Ellroy who gone further than any other (thriller) writer I know to dissect language. Take an excerpt from 'The Cold Six Thousand' for instance. He really pushed the envelope, and the book isn't easy to read - unless you take a real head-dive into it. It's a bit like reading a symphony. If you look at small parts of the whole it's almost gibberish but taken together it's a masterpiece.

The stew played geisha girl. The stew fluffed her beehive.
"What's your name?"
"Wayne Tedrow."
She whooped. "You just have to be Junior!"
He looked through her. He doodled. He yawned.
She fawned. She just loooooved his daddy. He flew with her oodles. She knew he was a Mormon wheel. She'd looove to know more.
Wayne laid out Wayne Senior.
He ran a kitchen-help union. He rigged low pay. He had coin. He had pull. He pushed right-wing tracts. He hobnobbed with fat cats. He knew J. Edgar Hoover.
The pilot hit the intercom. Dallas-on time.
The stew fluffed her hair. "I'll bet you're staying at the Adolphus."
Wayne cinched his seat belt. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, your daddy told me he always stays there."
"I'm staying there. Nobody consulted me, but that's where they've got me booked."
The stew hunkered down. Her skirt slid. Her garter belt gapped.
"Your daddy told me they've got a nice little restaurant right there in the hotel, and, well . . ."
The plane hit rough air. Wayne caught it low. He broke a sweat. He shut his eyes. He saw Wendell Durfee.
The stew touched him. Wayne opened his eyes.
He saw her hickeys. He saw her bad teeth. He smelled her shampoo.
"You were looking a little scared there, Wayne Junior."
"Junior" tore it.
"Leave me alone. I'm not what you want, and I don't cheat on my wife."

I'll also hasten to add that whenever I've attempted anything like this to emulate my favourite writers I failed badly so I guess it's a question of finding your own style and make it work for the context of your narrative. But you knew that already.... Am I wrong?


message 8: by Tony (new)

Tony Nash | 29 comments I'm sorry, but if I came across that piece of dialogue, I would immediately reject the book.


message 9: by Faith (new)

Faith Jones (havingfaith) | 17 comments If the writer differentiates the characters, it is clear which one of them has spoken simply by what they have said.


message 10: by Dwayne, Head of Lettuce (new)

Dwayne Fry | 4284 comments Mod
"Hello," Casey said.
"Hey," Peewee said. "How's it going?"
"Nothing much," Casey said. "And you?"
"I am practicing how to eat chewing gum and walk at the same time," Peewee said.


Agreed. The word "said" is overdone. When there are only two characters talking, I find it works to drop the "said" immediately after its established who is involved in the conversation. If it goes on a while, its good to toss another "said" in there now and then to remind the reader who is speaking. This is overdone. Worse, the dialogue is absolutely dull. Something better spark in the next line or two or I'm done.

“That… that was a trick… He escaped…?” Arnold mutters.
“You… You did it! You saved me!” Caroline exclaims while running to me, her voice a maelstrom of dissonant tones.
“Go home…” I muse.


I don' t mind an occasional "muttered" or "mused" but when it's used in every line, it gets distracting and takes away from the dialogue, which is the real meat of the scene. The dialogue should be the focus, not the tags. It's not terrible, but if all the dialogue in the book were like this, I would probably give up after a while. Magnus's reworking works better for me.

In the end, there are no hard set rules and every reader and every writer will be different. I lean toward agreeing with Elmore Leonard about using "said". I also agree with Magnus that sometimes you can leave the tags off and have the character doing some kind of action instead. There are two good reasons for doing that. First, it keeps the writing from being a hotbed of dialogue tags, and it gives the reader something to picture while the characters are talking, so they don't come across as just two people standing rigidly and doing nothing but talking. It doesn't have to be a big action. It can be as small as a character scratching their nose or maybe their eye twitches a little or they lick their lips.


message 11: by Jim (new)

Jim Bowering (arjaybe) | 86 comments Too many ellipses. That's what hit me in the eye. Unless you always use a lot of them and the reader is used to it ...

Also, "... maelstrom of dissonant tones." But that's not strictly about dialogue.


message 12: by Haru (new)

Haru Ichiban | 255 comments Magnus: Thank you! Of course I asked for it. Like I said in another topic, I prefer honesty over niceness. How else am I going to grow? And please don't believe I already know what I ask. Yes, I may understand a concept, but unlike some people here who have published one book and feel like experts, after four books I still feel like a beginner, and I'm learning new stuff every day.

Well, I do see the flow and beauty of the writing you uploaded. It's quite unique, I agree. As for the type of writing I exposed, you will see it's quite common in romance... or at least in badly written romance that sells millions.

In my opinion, you should know yourself first and then find what is a match for you. For example, you tend to write in long sentences, so I guess that is what comes naturally for you. If you tried that short sentences style, I can see why would it be a mismatch.

Faith: That's not easy anymore when you have several people talking.

Dwayne: LOL, I found a piece where that kind of writing was concentrated, but yes, I usually do it more sparsely. I have to say, I find it distracting when the little actions suggest nothing. I mean, I don't give a damn if Peewee the happy elf who is just joining the conversation to get the heroine to buy him a sandwich scratches its nose. For me, this is quite easily overdone, just as much as the "said" word. Differences of resonance, I suppose. Thanks!

Jim: Yeah, I tend to do that in very emotional moments or when characters are in deep thought. If you know a better alternative, please share.


message 13: by Jim (new)

Jim Bowering (arjaybe) | 86 comments Perhaps a period after trick and a comma after home? But as I said, if your readers are used to it, then it probably won't bother them.


message 14: by Viola (new)

Viola Russell | 36 comments You don't have to write "say." Mix the dialogue with action. For instance, Julian crushed the cigarette under his foot. "I wish I could stop smoking."

This action shows the dialogue belongs to Julian.


message 15: by Dwayne, Head of Lettuce (new)

Dwayne Fry | 4284 comments Mod
Viola wrote: "You don't have to write "say." Mix the dialogue with action. For instance, Julian crushed the cigarette under his foot. "I wish I could stop smoking."

This action shows the dialogue belongs to Julian."


I do a lot of this. It also adds some action to the scene, so you don't have a couple of talking heads floating around.


message 16: by Valerie (new)

Valerie Sells | 103 comments Viola wrote: "You don't have to write "say." Mix the dialogue with action. For instance, Julian crushed the cigarette under his foot. "I wish I could stop smoking."

This action shows the dialogue belongs to Ju..."


That's what I try to do much of the time.

Alternatively, when it's a conversation between only two people, perhaps on the phone, for example, I sometimes don't use any kind of 'say' tags at all. I just have the dialogue only until it's necessary for someone to actually do something again.


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