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.