Said No More

Reading to Write Right at Ordinary Lives

Not too long ago I read somewhere that attribution tags (he said, she said) were going out. Then I heard that a few authors had quit using them almost altogether. I was amazed. Could a book really be written without using so-and-so said? The answer is yes. Is it taboo to use he said or she said in books? Certainly not. Majoring on action beats and minoring on attributions is the best way to go and it gives a nice blend. (What's an action beat? Using an action to identify who's talking. Here's an example: Seth stroked his bearded chin, never taking his eyes from her. “Well then, kissing a reptile isn’t enough of a forfeit for you. The day you need my help is the day you’ll kiss me.” No need to say he said since we just saw him stroking his beard, which was an action beat.)

In her article on Intimate Storytelling, Gail Gaymer Martin says

Dialogue tags remove intimacy from the story because their purpose is so the reader knows who’s speaking. The only two words that readers will skim over and not be jerked from the story are said and asked.

...The tag distances the character from the reader so anything you can do to avoid them creates a more intimate novel. How can you do that? By including an action, description or emotion.

Tamela Hancock Murray posted about using action beats vs. tags in her post He said. She said.

Action tags are used as descriptors, to further character development, and to enhance the story. But “said” can be an effective way to keep your story moving.

When in doubt, read your words aloud and listen to the rhythm. Hearing your story will help you learn when “said” is your best friend.

I have to tell you, once I received Trish Perry's book, Unforgettable, it went straight to the top of my to be read pile, and it didn't stay there long because I couldn't keep my hands off it. I loved this book.**

Unforgettable has a great blend of action beats and regular ol' saids. In the first chapter (you can read it below--and I hope you do! It's yummy!) Perry used said only twice. All the other attributions were action beats. Other chapters I checked often had less.

As you read the excerpt, notice how the action beats show us the character's feelings without telling us how they felt. We also learn things about how the characters look and their mannerisms. Also check out how her two uses of said blend in and keep the action moving. Sometimes too many action beats slows the pace. That's when you want to use said. Use them where you need them and use action beats every place you can.

Here's chapter one of Unforgettable:
June 18, 1951

Rachel Stanhope talked to herself as if that were perfectly normal. Like a cat in a cage, she paced back and forth in front of her Arlington, Virginia dance studio. When she was stressed, she tended to focus squarely on the cause of her stress. All else—people, traffic, dignity—faded far away. She only appeared imbalanced as she muttered. In point of fact, her public monologues kept her sane.

“Should have known better than to count on Betty to get here in time this morning. This is the last time I’ll let her lock up the studio at night. The last!”

She checked her watch for the tenth time since she had arrived and found herself locked out. The first session of her summer ballroom dance class for junior high school students was due to begin in fifteen minutes. Her budget couldn’t handle the loss of these new students, and she had already used up all of her favors with the bank. She stopped pacing, made note of the cars driving past, and huffed out her frustration that Betty’s DeSoto wasn’t among them.

“Where is she? What an impression this is going to make!” She pulled her long, strawberry-blonde hair back from her face and fanned the back of her neck. It was going to be a warm day, even if she managed to cool her temper.

“Is there a problem, Rachel?”

Rachel swung around at the kind voice behind her. She mustered up a self-deprecating smile.

“Good morning, Mr. Chambers. No, I’m just working myself into a lather here. Don’t mind me.”

Sweet, hunched Mr. Chambers smiled at her, his crooked teeth vying for space behind his wrinkled lips. He and his wife lived in the garden apartments around the corner. Rachel had crossed paths with him so often during his frequent, shuffling strolls over the past three years, he had become a substitute grandfather to her. At times he even acted as her conscience.

“I don’t mind you, darling,” he said. “But what are you lathered up about?”

She waved off her behavior. Just talking with him about it helped calm her some. It was even better than talking to herself. Because of Mr. Chambers Rachel now associated the scent of mothballs with comfort and assurance. “Betty wanted to stay late last night to work on some choreography. So I left my keys with her so she could lock up. She was supposed to open the studio this morning.”

“And she’s let you down.”

Rachel sighed. “Yes.”

He looked away, toward the traffic rushing by. He nodded, and then threw a few extra nods in there for good measure. Finally he turned a serious expression on Rachel and spoke melodramatically. “Will you ever be able to forgive her?”

That made Rachel laugh out loud. This man could talk a loon off a ledge, of that she was certain. “Yes, I suppose so. Have I told you I love you, Mr. Chambers?”

“Never often enough, dear.” He started on his way and gave her arm a brief pat. “You stop on by the apartment if you need to telephone Betty. Nina and I will be home.”

No sooner had he taken off than a wood-paneled station wagon pulled up to the curb. The front passenger door opened, and a young boy jumped out, his face fresh and eager. His mother leaned over to watch him as he ran for the studio door. He shot a polite smile at Rachel and grabbed the door handle before she called out to his mother.

“I’m sorry. We’re locked out. My assistant is running late.”

“It’s locked, Mom.” The boy called out without acknowledging Rachel’s comment.

“Hang on, Jerry.” His mother addressed Rachel while checking her rear view mirror for traffic. “I wondered why no one was answering the phone. Are you the owner?”

“Yes. I’m Rachel.” She approached the car. “I can assure you this is unusual. And I think we’ll still manage to start the class on time. I loaned my keys to my assistant last night—”

“Yes, that’s fine. You and I spoke last week. But I’m late for my hairdresser’s appointment right now.”

“Oh. All right. Do you want to—”

“Can Jerry just wait there with you, you think? Would that be all right?”

Rachel looked at the boy, a well-fed adolescent with a crew cut and obvious confidence. “Is that all right with you, Jerry?”

“Sure.” He turned to peer through the studio’s glass door. “That would be swell.” He gave his mother a quick wave, cupped his hands against the door, and examined the studio as if he were using a periscope.

Rachel shut the car door and Jerry’s mother drove off.

At least this student would stick around for the duration. “How old are you, Jerry?” She sat on the bench outside the studio.

“Twelve. I start junior high in September.”

“Then you’re perfect for the class. Are you excited about learning ballroom dance?”

“Yeah, kind of. I mean, yes. My uncle’s a really good dancer. He says the girls love it when boys can do all the fancy dances.”

She smiled. Already interested in what the girls liked. “I’m glad you signed up. We never get enough boys, in my opinion.”

“Well, here comes another now.” Jerry pointed down the street. “Looks like they’re both coming for class, too.”

Rachel turned to see two kids coming her way. A boy and a girl, most definitely coming for her class. She could tell, because the girl looked thrilled and the boy looked ready to bolt, a far more typical reaction than Jerry’s.

Jerry ran up to them. Apparently the boy never met a stranger. He immediately chatted with the boy and girl as if they were his best friends.

And the man escorting them? Well, he was, in a word, breathtaking. Dressed in a sharp suit and crisp white shirt, dark blond hair cut similar to Cary Grant’s, and the kind of keen eyes so blue you could spot their color, even from this far away. Rachel quickly looked away from him, since he was probably their father. She took care with the fathers. Sometimes they had the wrong impression about dancers.

By the time the small group reached Rachel, the three kids had bonded. They ran to the other end of the storefront, where they stood on two benches and stared through the studio windows, chatting like gossips at a beauty parlor.

The attractive man was still attractive, despite the scowl he wore. “Locked out, huh?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. You see—”

“Exactly what I expected with this type of operation.” He nodded at the empty seat beside her. “Do you mind if I sit?”

Rachel struggled to hide her reaction. She swallowed down the gasp brought on by his insult. “Be my guest. Uh, ‘this type of operation’?”

He cocked his head toward the building. “The whole artsy thing. Dancing, painting, singing. Usually draws your irresponsible types.”

Well he wasn’t good looking at all! As a matter of fact, he needed a shave.

“I can’t say I agree with you there,” she said. “Do you honestly mean to say you don’t enjoy any of the arts? Is that what you’re saying, Mr. . . ?”

“Reegan. Josh Reegan.” He put out his hand and gave her a dazzling, genuine smile, and his dark-lashed eyes bordered on pretty.

How could such a stunning man be so stunningly boorish? She shook his hand. “Rachel Stanhope. But—”

“No, I don’t mean to degrade all of that art stuff. But to devote one’s whole life to it? That requires a kind of personality I can’t say I appreciate. Kind of frivolous work, don’t you think?”

He had absolutely no idea who she was. And no idea what he was talking about.

“Not at all. I happen to believe life would be dull if it weren’t for people like . . . like dancers and other artists, both professional and amateur. Imagine what the world would look like without the beauty and depth of the arts.”

He granted her a nod. “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve seen parts of the world devoid of beauty. Berlin and London just a few years ago. Still, there are—”

“You served in the war?”

“Yep. Army Air Corps.”

Yes. She could see that. She could imagine him in uniform. The crisp pinks and greens. The broad shoulders. The jaw as strong as his opinions.

“And you’re still in the service?”

“No. Newspaper journalist.” He patted the chest pocket of his starched white shirt, from the top of which a notepad peeked. “But I’m still after the bad guys.” He broke into a modest grin.

Rachel sat back on the bench and crossed her arms. “So are you a cynic because of your war experience or because of your newspaper experience?”

His smile dropped. “Cynic? I’m not a cynic. I’m a realist.”

“Uh huh.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “That’s what the cynics always say.”

“I just think—no, I know—there are too many dark places and events in the world, too many greedy, heartless people, to warrant some of the more flippant ways people use time they could devote to hunting down evil.”

“Wow, I’ll bet you get invited to a lot of parties, huh?”

She wasn’t sure how to read the look he gave her then. Part amused, part hurt, part annoyed. But she didn’t feel right to study his face while she waited for him to respond, so she spoke again.

“I’m glad you’re not allowing your disdain for dance to keep you from giving your kids a chance to experience it for themselves. They’re just kids after all. They probably haven’t figured out yet how horrible the world really is.”

“Those aren’t my kids.”


“They’re my sister’s. I’m not married.” He gestured toward the kids with his chin. “They seem to get along well with your boy, anyway.”

Rachel frowned and glanced at the trio, who now squatted around a caterpillar as it ambled across the sidewalk.

“He’s not my boy. His mother dropped him off.”

Josh raised his eyebrows and nodded. “Ah. So why are you here? Not that I haven’t enjoyed being insulted by you.”

She gave him a prim smile. “Mr. Reegan—”


“Josh. Yes, well, excuse me, but you don’t know the first thing about being insulted. Apparently you don’t even realize when you’re insulting others.”

A squeal of panic made them both turn their attention across the street. Rachel’s errant employee Betty stood there, waiting for a break in traffic and waving her hands like a jazz performer.

“I’ll be right there, Rachel! Sorry! Traffic!” She shrugged with exaggeration, as if she were on stage and needed to communicate befuddlement to the cheap seats. Then she held up a set of keys and shook them. “Don’t fire me!”

Rachel squinted at Betty’s perfectly upswept Lana Turner hairdo and knew her tardiness probably had less to do with traffic and more to do with a mirror and a well-used curling iron.

No matter. She was here now, and if Rachel lost any of her young students today, it wouldn’t be Betty’s fault.

Two more parents and their children approached the studio from opposite ends of the sidewalk. Rachel stood from the bench and called to the three kids gathered around the caterpillar.

“Okay, kids, come on in.” She smiled at the parents who had just arrived. “We had a bit of a delay getting open. Betty will check your registrations while I get started with the kids.”

Finally she glanced back at Josh. He too had stood, all six foot something of him. He stared at the ground and rubbed at that stubble on his cheek as if he could wipe it away. When he shot a look up at her, she refused to hold a gaze with those contrite eyes of blue.

True, he was a single man. Possibly he was a war hero. Certainly he was easy on the eyes. But Rachel looked away for all of those reasons. In thirty-two years she had learned to trust her instincts. And instinct told her that Josh Reegan would cause her nothing but trouble.

I thoroughly enjoyed Unforgettable. Not only was it something a little different--ballroom dance--but it was a time era that intrigues me and one that seems to have been missing from books until recently since it's not quite been classified as historical. A time long enough ago that I don't know much about it, but recent enough that my parents do, and recent enough that I remember my grandfather listening to Nat King Cole's music. Yes, after reading the book, I bought the mp3 of the song. Magical. I'm watching to get my hands on more of Summerside's other books in the "When I fall in Love" series.

As a reader, I loved this book. The ballroom dance setting, the era, the humor Perry wove in, and the romance. The characters are rich and full, not just the main characters, but the secondaries too. It's a smooth read that flows from beginning to end.

As a writer,  I noticed Perry's dialog. It sparkles, and there's a lot of it--no long passages of internal. In fact, everything is interlaced with dialog, something I LOVE. It keeps the story active and keeps me 100% involved.  And she did it mainly with action beats.

Unforgettable by Trish Perry
Rachel Stanhope tries to see the good in everyone. But even her good graces are challenged when she meets Josh Reegan outside her Arlington, Virginia dance studio on a brisk fall morning in 1951. Admittedly, he’s attractive, but she finds his cynicism and cockiness hard to tolerate.

A hard-news journalist and former World War II Air Force pilot, Josh considers distractions like ballroom dancing frivolous wastes of time. He has yet to shed his wartime drive to defend good against evil whenever he can. Yes, Rachel’s confident nature is a refreshing challenge, but he wouldn’t tangle with her if his newspaper hadn’t roped him into covering one of her studio’s competitions in New York City.

Between Arlington and New York—between the melodrama of ballroom antics and the real drama of political corruption—between family involvement and romantic entanglement—Rachel and Josh have their hands full. The last thing either of them expects is mutual need and support. But once they stop dancing around the truth, the results are unforgettable.

So tell me, have you noticed the authors using said and asked less? What do you think of it?

What's your favorite element of a book? Dialog? Action? Romance? Setting or internal thought?

**For the record, if I don't like a book, you won't find me talking about it on here--it's that whole 'if don't have anything nice to say' principle. And there are books I'm reading that will collect dust and even some that I haven't finished reading. *shiver*


  1. I love a flirty and fun banter in a romance. I've read books that give he said/she said only and enjoyed the book (but I noticed it--may be the writer in me)

    I enjoy books that use other words as well. He barked, she growled. etc...

    But I personally try to do a blend of both. When it calls for a kind of tag that needs more emotion such as he hollered, she shrieked then I use that.

    If it's a lot of people talking and I need to insert a few tags to keep the reader clear, I use "said." :)

  2. Love using action beats - getting better about it!

    And I love dialogue :)


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