he said she saidHe Said, She Said...

by Marg McAlister


Whole books have been written on how to write dialogue - but a quick scan of those on my shelves show that none of them specifically addresses the topic of how to get around the problem of two males or two females talking at length.

Of course, it can be done - there are countless novels out there that have scene after scene of smoothly written dialogue involving two people of the same sex. But... what are the techniques involved?

You'll find that a lot of the general advice about how to write effective dialogue applies to this specific problem, too - so when you're reading through such advice, think about how you can adapt it to make it clear who is speaking. For example, one tip you'll find is to make sure that your characters sound individual enough so that you don't have to continually write 'he said' or 'she said'. Naturally, this immediately solves a lot of your problems with confusion in he said/he said.

"Making characters sound individual" doesn't mean just giving them a pet phrase that's repeated, or using slang/dialect etc to make them 'sound' different. Attempts to reproduce dialect or accents on the page can become irritating for the reader, as can attempts to show social class by dropping 'h' from the beginning of words or 'g' from the end. (e.g. "I 'ad a 'orse once," he said, "that was always tryin' to buck me orf." ANNOYING!) You can show personality by WHAT people say as well as HOW they say it. People have different backgrounds, levels of education, opinions about the world, levels of tact, and so on. The words they speak (and their thoughts) should reflect this.

The key to writing any scene with two or more people in it - regardless of whether they are two females, two males, or male-female - is to remember that every one of us has our own 'window on the world'. This is in general terms (your beliefs about religion, spirituality, politics, money, class, race, education and so on) and for any one moment in time (your mood can affect your outlook and ideas; someone else's mood can have an influence on yours; a traumatic event can make you more or less able to cope than usual).

Now let's examine a short example.

Using Names (unnatural)

Marcy took Jenna's suitcase. Jenna's eyes looked haunted, as though she had seen things nobody should see. Marcy was sure it would take some time to draw her out.

Using Pronouns (confusing)

She took her suitcase. Her eyes looked haunted, as though she had seen things nobody should see. She was sure it would take some time to draw her out.

Using a mix of names and pronouns (acceptable)

Marcy took Jenna's suitcase. Her eyes looked haunted, as though she had seen things nobody should see. Marcy was sure it would take some time to draw her out.

The third option, a mix of names and pronouns, is the best - not perfect, but a reasonable option. Since we're in Marcy's viewpoint, the second sentence 'Her eyes looked haunted, as though she had seen things nobody should see' must refer to Jenna (Marcy can't see her own eyes, and the words 'as though' she that she is guessing at what is going on in Jenna's mind. This, however, can still be improved - as we'll see in a moment.

If you were to write a whole scene starring Marcy and Jenna, you would probably find that repetition of their names gets tedious. So what can you do?

You can use other ways of referring to the characters, such as 'the other woman' or 'her friend' or 'the girl' but this often sounds unnatural. If Marcy doesn't know Jenna well, you could say 'the other woman's eyes looked haunted'; if they're friends, you could say 'her friend's eyes looked haunted'. The problem is that you can use this only once (maybe twice in a long scene) - any more and it sounds like an obvious ploy to avoid using their names.

We're back to using each character's 'window on the world' to view the scene. STAYING TRUE TO VIEWPOINT IS ALL-IMPORTANT. As the writer, you need to clearly signal the viewpoint character at the beginning of every scene.

In this example, we're in Marcy's viewpoint. Jenna's mood will have an effect on both of them. Therefore, when you write your scene, you (Marcy) will be concerned about the other (Jenna). This influences every word you write. So, rewriting this first example, we could say:

Marcy took Jenna's suitcase, disturbed by the haunted look in her friend's eyes. It was going to take some time to draw her out.

What have we done here?

  1. First, we've deleted '...as though she had seen things nobody should see'. For a start, it's cliched. Secondly, it's not necessary: Jenna's eyes wouldn't look 'haunted' if she hadn't said, done or seen things that were worrying her deeply. The writer can build on this as the scene progresses.

  2. Second, we've deleted 'Marcy was sure' or 'she was sure' and simply tapped into Marcy's thoughts: It was going to take some time to draw her out. We KNOW that this is coming from Marcy, not Jenna - so there's no need for a tag like 'Marcy was sure'. That cuts out the need to use another pronoun or character's name.

  3. Third, we've used 'her friend' but we've inserted it smoothly into the narrative. This works well here, but the writer would need to be careful of further uses of 'her friend' in a scene.

This is just a short example, but it demonstrates one way to handle a scene between two people of the same sex.

A checklist

  1. Have you established clearly who the viewpoint character is?

  2. Do you remain true to this person's 'window on the world' (their mood, their beliefs, their way of speaking etc)?

  3. Throughout the scene, have you eliminated any phrase or sentence that is NOT true to this point of view?

  4. Have you (mostly) tapped into the viewpoint character's thoughts, instead of continually using tags like 'she thought' or 'Marcy wondered' or 'Marcy was sure' etc?

  5. Have you kept alternative terms like 'her friend', 'the other man', 'the boy' etc to a minimum?

  6. Have you achieved a good balance of names, pronouns, alternative terms, thought tags, speech tags, actions and 'tapped' thoughts? {Note that a 'good balance' doesn't mean an equal distribution. You can use 'he' and 'she' more than the others, because they are so common they tend to 'disappear'. Just make sure there is no confusion about who is thinking or speaking.)

It takes time and practice to become confident in handling scenes featuring two or more characters of the same sex, so that the whole scene flows smoothly. However, when you have mastered this, you can be sure that your writing will have taken a considerable step forward.


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