05 September, 2012

A Writer's Guide to Overwriting: Speech

Recently, I wrote about overwriting and underwriting. As an overwriter, if there's one place I could really go to town, it's in the minefield that is dialogue.

Dialogue is notoriously difficult to make realistic. Even after a few years of writing tonnes of the stuff, I am still capable of ruining a perfectly good story. If you're jealous of that ability, here's how you can do it too...

The mistakes you might like to try when writing speech include:
  1. Being afraid of it.
  2. Not being realistic.
  3. Being too realistic.
  4. Attributing or "tagging" inappropriately.

The first three of these I'll tackle some other time, because by far the easiest way for the beginner to overwrite is the fourth one. It's also one way that editors and agents separate amateurs from professionals (and potential professionals!)

Attribution/tagging is how a reader knows who's speaking. Some writers, like Stephanie Meyer, are great role-models for over-tagging dialogue. They can never write 'he said' when he can exclaim, whisper or expound instead. Yup, they know their synonyms and they are not afraid to use them. I heard a beautiful pastiche of Meyer on the radio once. It contained gems such as:

"What are you doing here?" she questioningly questioned.

In most cases tagging isn't necessary - a reader should be able to tell who's talking. But in those places where you do need to attribute speech to make it clearer, you can really go to town. In almost all circumstances the words 'said' or 'asked' will do just fine. But there's no need for the aspiring overwriter to stop there. You can allege, howl, wail, screech or whimper; yelp, affirm or bawl. Just so long as you don't mind making an editor vomit.

I'm not saying professional writers never use any other word. Variety is important - sometimes one of those synonyms can be necessary - it's just not as important as we might think. In fact, it's distracting. Use more than a handful of those synonyms, even across a whole novel, and you've successfully marked yourself down as an amateur. It should be obvious from the story whether your character is likely to be shouting, whispering or murmering their words with a wry smile.

The most offensive way to overwrite your speech tags is to use a word that isn't even a synonym for 'said' in the first place. 'Smile' and 'laugh' are popular with overwriters. For example, ' "I really like you," she laughed. "A lot." '

Note that it's perfectly possible for the passage to read, ' "I really like you," she said with a laugh. "A lot." ' Or even, ' "I really like you." She laughed. "A lot." ' But if you want to be an overwriter you must resist these options at all costs. And don't even start to question why you need to put the laugh in there in the first place, or you'll be in very great danger of making the dialogue substantially better.

So what's my top tip for overwriting? Well, I always say/ remark/ assert/ utter/ holler/ squawk/ whimper/ groan/ whisper/ hiss that a different synonym for every line of speech is about the best way of ruining dialogue there is. Just watch those agents' eyes roll and let the rejections flow!

Can you think of any more variation on 'said' that I can crowbar into my next story?


  1. I am finding your recent posts rather amusing, as they seem to sum up how English is taught in primary school. Most teachers I know have 'alternatives for said' on their wall - and guess what the children end up doing...

  2. There's plenty more where these are coming from! You keep on teaching alternatives though - like I said (stated/explained), you have to have the vocabulary in order to decide not to use it!

    Perhaps it's a self-fulfilling thing. Children are taught to use lots of different words for said, therefore using lots of different words for said makes writing seem childlike? Maybe if we put a lower age-limit on using synonyms, they'd sound really sophisticated rather than try-hard!

  3. 'There must be more,' I muttered. Seriously though Chloe, I have to agree with Rachel, your posts are amusing, but then I think they always have been for me on some level.
    I like humour and you inject it easily. I must apologise for not managing to get over here more in recent weeks. I'm now on the third (and hopefully final) draft of my romance novel.
    Yes, okay, it's called 'Ten Days' and it's set in Panama.
    Anyway, back to the tagging thing,which if I remember correctly is why I came on here in the first place ... I tend to stick to 'said' and as often as possible I allow a sequence of dialogue to run without tags. I always read those sequences aloud. Embarrassing, yes, but effective.

    1. That's exciting news about your novel - it seems like only a few months ago that you were starting it! What's the plan for it whne you're finished? (This is just a heads-up as I'm by no means an expert, but 'Ten Days' probably isn't going to go down too well as a title with agents/editors. It doesn't really matter because if they publish, they'll choose a title for you, but apparently they get a bit sick of titles that are numbers of days or things like, 'All Summer' because they get so many of them and they don't say anything about genre etc. But, like I said, I'm no expert, just passing on what I've heard!)

      Letting dialogue run without tags is always preferable!

  4. I must be missing the point here.................surely the word used instead of 'said' is about HOW it is said, not who by? (sorry, by whom) 'chortled' conveys a completely different mood to 'groaned' doesn't it?

    1. You're right, CJ, it is about how. And sometimes you will need one of those words to convey the right impression. But the point here is that if you are a good writer, you don't usually need to use those words. If you've made your characters realistic and the situation that they're in clear, and you get what they actually say right - then it should be obvious HOW they say it. You shouldn't need to tell the reader! But it's a skill that has to be learned!

  5. Food for thought in an easy-to-digest format. I love questioningly questioned - I might use that in future. My first book (coming soon) is probably guilty of overwriting. Or maybe just my under-editing!

    Other words for your list: insist, imply, infer, suggest, intimate and proffer.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Oooooh, I'm going to use proffer!

    2. Sadly, I think I already have. (Insert emoticon for cringe here.)


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