Essential writing skills: he said, she said – without adjectives

Have you ever tried writing dialogue without all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ nonsense? It’s an effective technique, though it’s easy to say ‘do this’. Harder to master.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)
Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Hemingway set the gold standard – half-page strings of dialogue, often without any directions at all as to the speaker– and it was usually clear as to who said what.

The reason he took that angle is that the onus is on writers to show, not tell – and how better to show than by revealing the esssential meaning through the dialogue, rather than making the reader wade through instructions about it? Hemingway was the absolute master of the technique.

How did he do it? Any dialogue that’s well written should, ideally, speak for itself. The character of the character, shall we say, should come through in the choice of words. Through the context. Through their opinions and wording. If you’ve drawn the character right, the reader will be familiar enough to know what they might say. Perhaps even by such a simple device as a repeated signature phrase – ‘My dear Watson’, for example.

It becomes blatant where the characters are parodic – Passepartout and Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, for instance.

Of course direction is sometimes still needed – not least to anchor the start point.  You have to add “he said” “she said” somewhere. However, one thing to avoid is a qualifying adjective – ‘he said darkly’, ‘she said brightly’ and so forth.

This is important. Show not tell. Adjectives tell the reader what to think about the dialogue; whereas the trick to quality writing is to make the reader work for the meaning by showing them a direction. Let the reader discover the tone through context or choice of words.

Think pared back. Think character. Think Hemingway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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18 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: he said, she said – without adjectives

    1. So do I. I read his ‘Farewell to Arms’ not long ago – and his style hasn’t dated a bit. Unlike much of the other stuff from the 1920s. I look on Hemingway as the writer who set modern style on its way… we all follow, humbly, in his footsteps.

  1. I went looking to purchase your book, Pacific War New Zealand and Japan, and I’m afraid even the cheapest copy is out of my budget and then to ship it to the US cost almost as much. I will remain on the look out for a copy that is already here in the States as I am very anxious to read it. I apologize, but I am retired and on a tight budget.

    1. Hi – thank you. Yes, this book has been out of print for years, so any extant copies are going to be ‘valuably priced’. As author, I don’t get a cent out of the inflation of that particular market! 🙂 I am looking to republish this and a variety of my other out-of-print titles within the next twelve months. Hopefully in print, but certainly as e-books. Some things have to come together for that to happen, but I am quietly hopeful. The first step was retrieving the publishing licenses from Penguin, which I’ve now done. I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Reblogged this on soulandquill and commented:
    Great point! I was thinking about this recently and commenting to a fellow writer on the matter.
    An important lesson to learn early – save yourself the pain of culling words more than you are already going to.

  3. I used to add on adjectives all the time because I thought I had to be descriptive or the reader wouldn’t catch it. Then when I took an advanced writing class at my college I found out that the adjectives can interrupt the flow of the dialogue and distract the reader. It’s so funny how a slight change can affect the entire piece. Great post!

    1. Thanks! Yes, it’s a lesson not usually taught until well down the track. A few extra words – or a few less words – can alter the whole tone of a piece, for sure.

  4. Dialogue without direction is hard with more than two characters, but as you said, it can be done if the characters are well made. I would think this would show up more towards the middle and end of a story once the reader had been exposed to the players and has a feeling for how they speak.

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