I really want to know who said what. All the time. In real life, and when reading.

Nothing makes me more ticked off with a story than not knowing who’s speaking. And it’s rare anymore for me to read a book where I don’t find places where I have to re-read to figure it out.

Please, don’t do this to your readers. I notice it happens most often near the end of a story when things are winding down, answers to questions are provided, and lots of characters are talking. Just when you really don’t want to stop to figure out who’s saying what. Did the writer get in a hurry and leave off the attributions? Did the author figure that her characters’ voices were so clear by now the reader would automatically know who was talking? (Doesn’t happen with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.) Has the writer bought into the idea that writing “he said” or “she said” is breaking a rule?

See, you don’t want me wondering about this when I’m reading your story. You want me to glide through it, to never have to stop to puzzle out something as simple as “who said that?”

I’ve been reading and writing for a long time now. A decade or so ago a very popular author suggested that a simple “he said”/“she said” was the best way for the reader to know who was talking. This was suggested instead of using modifiers or such attributes as “he hissed,” or “he growled,” or said with an adverb: “she said softly,” or “he said loudly.” This decade, someone else “ruled” that you should not only not use attributes at all, but instead use small actions to show what the character is doing and thinking and feeling while speaking. Thus, you may notice a heck of a lot of coffee being drunk now in what you read. Or tea. It’s so easy to use “Jenny took a sip of coffee” that many writers do use it. Over and over again. After Jenny takes a sip of hers, John answers and adds cream to his. How does this add one bit of information or interest to the story? It doesn’t. Instead, it’s distracting. Not only that, there’s a set up when the coffee if brought by the waitress, or made by one of the characters, or even simply poured.

What to do? Mix it up, of course.

  1. Have some characters use certain tics to show they’re upset, impatient, or some other emotion (fingering a necklace, tapping a pen, etc.).
  2. Have the occasional character hiss (be sure there’s some “s” sounds in the words he utters, however) or roar or whisper.
  3. Occasionally use small actions, being sure they add to the story. If John is waving his arms around because he’s upset and knocks his coffee into Jane’s lap, we now have something of interest happening. What will Jane’s reaction be?
  4. Use “he said” or “she said” when you want fast action along with the dialogue. Any reader older than ten is used this and won’t even notice. But they will miss it if they cannot figure out who is speaking.

 And they will be ticked. Trust me on this.

One more bit of info. With e-readers, things can get even worse when the attributions are left out because of wonky formatting. Which is exactly what happened to me just before I wrote this rant, I mean, advice. Near the end of a novel by an extremely famous and popular writer, she left out a “he said” when the formatting got messed up (big NY publisher, too) and two paragraphs ran together. Or I think they did. I had to go back to re-read it because at first I thought one person was speaking, but when I got about four or five paragraphs further with no attributions and two characters speaking, I thought it might have been the other character. I’m still not sure I ever got it right. There was a small action in there, but it didn’t help identify the character speaking. In fact, it made it harder to figure out. What do you suppose I’m going to remember the most about this novel?

Takeaway—be sure your reader knows who is speaking every single time. If in doubt, for heaven’s sake, drop in a “he said” or a “she said.” Readers will thank you. This reader will even bless you.


The current advice to is avoid using “he said/she said” and instead show the characters doing something. There is also a similar tendency for some authors to write too many of the details of, for example, the character getting from Point A to Point B.

Details can add texture to our writing, for sure. But let’s not allow them to get in the way of the story.

Sometimes, a simple “he said” is perfect. Because if you put in instead, “Tom shrugged,” you add a bland action and interrupt the dialogue for no good reason. Unless you describe him thus:

Cool Dapper Shruggy Smiley by Viscious-Speed -

If you put in, “Stella shook her golden hair and some fell over her right eye. She brushed it aside,” you’ve really interrupted the dialogue. The only possible reason for this is to show Stella has blonde hair, if it hasn’t already come up. And of course, to avoid using “she said.”

Nothing irritates me more than not knowing who the speaker is in a section of dialogue. It used to be said (!) that “he said/she said” was invisible to the reader—it helped the reader keep track of whom was speaking, but it didn’t get in the way. Lately, however, that is not the advice being given. Instead, we’re told to put in those “small” actions to indicate who’s speaking.  And some authors do that so consistently, I want to stop reading.

Another reason given to not use “he said/she said” is to show what the character is feeling or thinking. This is sometimes a good idea, but it can also be overdone. What the reader already knows about the character will give him a clue as to what the speaker feels or thinks. Or the words in the dialogue alone can convey the emotion. In other words, as the story progresses, the reader should know how the protag and several of her friends, relatives and enemies think and how they feel. No need to “show” us those reactions on every page and during every chunk of dialogue.

The other, similar problem, which fortunately is still frowned upon, is putting in too much detail when a character goes from one place to another. We’re given a laundry list (what is a laundry list, anyway?  I know what a grocery list is, but a laundry list must be something done by our great-grandparents)—we’re given a list of street names, right and left turns, type of roadway, shifting gears, and pushing hard on the gas pedal or the brake. Give me a break! Or we spend time with the character actually getting in and out of a car, what kind of car it is, the color of the upholstery, and so on. Is any of this important to the story? That’s the ultimate test. If it’s not important, no matter how interesting to the author, cut it out!

And that should be the final test for any detail inserted anyplace in your story. Does it make the story better? Is it important to the story? It is interesting enough in itself to leave it in? If none of these apply, get rid of it. Your readers will thank you. This reader in particular will salute you.