Editor and Author Vrinda Pendred explains the difference between inquits and body language in fiction writing, and how to vary your dialogue to bring it to life.
Something I commonly see in my work as an editor, and as an avid reader of indie eBooks, is confusion between inquits and body language. Inquit is a term my old creative writing teacher at University used to refer to phrases such as ‘he said’ and ‘she said’. I’ve since learned that, technically, the word is Latin for ‘says’, specifically relating to third-person present-tense grammatical constructions, but what I’m going to discuss in this article applies to any indication of speech in our writing.
Inquits vs Body Language
In my reading, both professionally and for fun, I frequently come across phrases like this:
- ‘I don’t know,’ she sighed.
- ‘That’s hilarious,’ he laughed.
- ‘Yes,’ she nodded.
- ‘No,’ he shook his head.
- ‘Maybe,’ she shrugged.
Or even (in really extreme cases):
- ‘I suppose,’ he stretched out across the bed and yawned.
- ‘That’s a good point,’ she scratched her nose.
If you approach a professional publisher with writing like this, they will generally ignore you. I’ve even seen some publisher websites state explicitly that if they see such narration, they will immediately toss aside your submission. That’s why it’s so important not to fall into the trap of constructing your speech in this way.
So what exactly is wrong with these sentences?
- No one can sigh, laugh, nod or shrug out speech. You speak speech; the rest is body language.
- You don’t shake your head out a sentence (that one is so wrong that even just explaining why it doesn’t make sense turns into another insensible sentence).
- And you certainly can’t stretch out across the bed and yawn, or scratch your nose, a sentence.
Moreover, I find as a reader that it can be tiresome hearing some form of ‘he said’ after every line of speech. For that reason, and to improve sensibility, I always recommend that my editing clients rephrase such sentences as follows:
- She sighed. ‘I don’t know.’
- He threw his head back and laughed.
- She nodded.
- He shook his head.
- She shrugged.
- He stretched out across the bed and yawned. ‘I suppose,’ he said.
- She scratched her nose. ‘That’s a good point,’ she decided.
What these revisions have in common is that the body language comes before the speech (e.g. She sighed. ‘I don’t know.’). In this way, there’s often no need to write ‘he said’, as it’s implicit in the sentence construction.
Other times, the narration is enough to indicate the response (e.g. shaking your head is enough to indicate ‘no’ without having to say the word). Alternatively, the speech can be replaced by more colourful narration. For example, instead of having your character say something is hilarious, show that he finds it funny by describing his laughter.
In one example, you will note that I added ‘he said’ at the end. This was because the body language preceding the speech was more detailed in its description and it somehow just ‘felt right’ to build on the sentence.
Bear in mind that my suggested revisions are not ‘the correct way’ to write; they’re just examples. Play around with your sentence construction until it feels right for you. The important thing is to ensure that the sentences make sense. Remember: no one can shrug their speech. Shrugging and talking are two separate actions and should be indicated as such through your punctuation and sentence structure.
Varying Your Inquits
Something I was taught in my University creative writing class was the importance of varying your inquits. This means instead of repeatedly writing ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, coming up with other, more emotive ways to describe your speech. For example:
- He replied
- She retorted
- He demanded
- She begged
- He snapped
- She questioned (though you could indicate this through body language, e.g. She raised an eyebrow)
- He cried (again, if he really is crying and not just crying out, you could replace this with body language, e.g. Tears fell down his face)
Beware, though, that the minute you start getting creative with your inquits, you draw attention to them. That means you need to be careful not to use a different inquit for every single line of speech, or the narration will become invasive, rather than bringing the speech to life. There are times when just saying ‘he said’ is enough. It’s all about getting the right balance between colourful and straightforward.
On that point, if you’re writing a lengthy dialogue between two characters, you should also consider not including narration around some lines of speech. Give your readers a break once in a while, whenever it’s clear enough who’s doing the talking. This allows the dialogue to flow naturally and swiftly in the reader’s head, like a real conversation.
Just be careful not to omit the narration for too long, for two reasons:
- You risk your scene feeling ‘dry’ (i.e. the reader can’t feel or ‘see’ what’s happening)
- You risk confusing who’s talking. Character A might begin the dialogue opposed to something, and finish the dialogue defending it, because you accidentally gave her Character B’s line (a humorous example of this is in the lyrics to Bitchin’ Camaro by The Dead Milkmen). I have seen this many times, and have even made this mistake myself, in my early days of writing. Ensuring you add in body language and inquits every few lines, wherever appropriate, will keep your dialogue clear.
Putting It All Together
So what does this all look like, in practice? Below is an example of something I’ve written (so as not to violate any other writer’s copyright). It comes from They Who from the Heavens Came, book 1 of my YA sci-fi / fantasy series The Wisdom:
He shot her a look like she shouldn’t have to ask such a question. ‘You’re shaken up enough, and you actually have the power. Imagine how one of your friends would react.’
‘I’ve already told my friends.’
Seth leaned back in the desk chair he had commandeered. ‘And what did they say?’
‘They didn’t believe you.’
‘Not as such….’
Seth shook his head. ‘Sit with me,’ he instructed. He moved to the floor, glancing briefly at her choice in rug, and waited for her to join him.
If we examine the above example, we can see that:
- In some sentences, I have used body language to indicate the speaker.
- In others, I have indicated the speaker, but tried to vary the language where I felt this could bring the scene to life (e.g. ‘he instructed’).
- In others still, I have left out any form of narration, to allow the speech to flow swiftly. However, I have only omitted this narration for a few lines, so the reader does not get confused over who is talking (and so I don’t!).
I hope you found this article useful – and I encourage you to look through your writing and see where you can be clearer and more creative with your inquits, where they might be missing, or where you might be able to leave them out altogether. It may seem like a small matter, but in fiction, these edits can change the whole feel of the piece; they can make the difference between a vivid engaging story and one that feels tiresome to read.
If you feel you could benefit from further guidance on these and other points in your writing, please feel free to get in touch with me regarding the editing and proofreading services I offer. Also, be sure to subscribe to this blog for more writing insights, and to share this article with anyone else you feel might find it useful.
Vrinda Pendred originally grew up in Arizona, but moved to England in 1999, where she now lives with her husband and their two children. She is the author of the YA fantasy series The Wisdom, available from all good ebook shops. Her first novel was The Ladder, a story about two friends learning to grow through their difficult childhoods and find the light that lies inside themselves.
Vrinda also runs a publishing house for writers with neurological conditions, called Conditional Publications. Their first book, Check Mates: A Collection of Fiction, Poetry and Artwork about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, by People with OCD, was released in 2010 (Kindle and paperback), with future books in the pipeline.
In addition to her writing, Vrinda previously tutored GCSE / A-Level English, and currently works as a freelance proofreader and editor. She holds a BA Hons in English with Creative Writing, a Proofreading qualification with Chapter House, and has completed work experience with Random House.