He Said She Said

When I was writing Crime Files (and there may be some more soon), my editor came back with some notes about too many instances of he said, she said.

Problem was, in some scenes there were four or five people talking, and each speaker had to be identified to avoid confusion. So a scene could go:

“I don’t see any blood,” said Burton.

“Maybe it’s been cleaned up,” Trellis said.

“I don’t clean floors,” Hector said. “You can ask my wife, when you find her.”

Radley said, “Who says the blood was on the floor?”

I can avoid some of the repetition by moving “said” around, e.g. before/after the dialogue and the speaker, but it still becomes a distracting beat.  And you’ll get no “he scoffed condescendingly” from me. As a disciple of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, any verbs other than “said” are out of the question. See Rules 3 and 4:

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

So what to do?

If I’m going to tell the story through action and dialogue–which I am–the best option is to give the speaker an action to put the reader’s focus on him/her:

“I don’t see any blood,” said Burton.

Trellis snapped a fresh battery into his camera. “Maybe it’s been cleaned up.”

“I don’t clean floors,” Hector said. “You can ask my wife, when you find her.”

Radley looked at the suspect. “Who says the blood was on the floor?”

I like that much better, I sighed contentedly. Ah crap.

6 Comments

  1. do you have any plans to make a third book? I really love these, can’t get enough of them… Honestly, you could have a TV show with these stories.

    • Thanks very much Art. I’m working on another project right now, but more Crime Files books is always a possibility. If no publishers want to put them out, I may write them for e-readers. Thanks again!

  2. I have always liked this style. I don’t know if you agree, but I think it’s clean & easy, and allows the reader to fly through the exchange very quickly.

    Burton: “I don’t see any blood.”

    Trellis: “Maybe it’s been cleaned up.”

    Hector: “I don’t clean floors. You can ask my wife, when you find her.”

    Radley: “Who says the blood was on the floor?”

    • I like it Skelly! Almost like a script. The white space does pull the eye along, so I like the speed of it, especially in a tense scene.

And then you said: