A few years back I heard the phrase, “Said is dead” was being hawked as writing advice. Aspiring writers were paying a fair amount of money at writing conferences to be told this silliness.
The current “said is dead” movement got its roots in primary and secondary schools, as an attempt to widen students’ vocabularies and prepare them for standardized tests. Googling “said is dead” reveals lengthy and awkward vocabulary lists promising teachers that synonyms for “said” will make their students better writers. And the intentions are good (who’s mad at a rich vocabulary?), but the idea that “said is dead” is deeply flawed.
Bigger words are better, right?
I occasionally get to see this well-meaning advice at work, when I take on manuscripts where the author has painstakingly varied the verbs so that “said” rarely appears on the page. I respect the time and effort it took, but I always suggest they tone it down. An occasional “asked” “blurted”, “whispered,” or any number of other bold verbs, is great. Bold verbs are like spice in a savory dish. They add depth and emotion.
But when every other line of dialogue has “injected” “interrupted” “retorted” “argued”, etc., the writing starts to feel redundant and amateurish. The story itself gets a bit lost, as the reader’s attention can’t help but focus on the vocabulary instead of the plot.
Put another way, if writers are talked into the idea that they should only use showy words like “lilted” “gloated” “hissed” “pondered” and especially that old chestnut “ejaculated,” instead of “said,” what happens is that the reader is reminded that they are reading words. This is great if you’re trying to impress your third-grade teacher. But that’s not really what any of us are here for, is it?
So let’s not worry about impressing that third-grade teacher. Readers want a story, let’s focus on how to give them that story. Any language that is not in direct service of telling the story should be recognized as a distraction.
Nothing new under the sun
This is not the first time “said” has been put in the corner. There was a book, The Said Book, published in 1948, that was sold to wannabe writers with the idea that complicated vocabulary would add substance to their writing. It’s the same basic logic, that newbies have to dress up their language because their basic storytelling is somehow inadequate.
I originally learned about The Said Book because the basic idea is lampooned in the Turkey City Lexicon, a list of common problems that come up when critiquing science fiction and fantasy. The Turkey City Lexicon, a smart and funny manual developed to help critique groups deal with common problems in science fiction stories, defines Said Bookisms as “an artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.”
The word “said” is basically perfect. It’s short, easy to read, and can appear multiple times on the page without looking conspicuous. For the most part, “said” is all you need. Rather than making your writing sound more professional, an overuse of words like “retorted” can end up making your writing look amateurish and purply.
But what if I really don’t like the word “said”?
The point of dialogue tags like “he said” or “she ordered” are so that the reader knows who’s talking. The reader can easily keep track of who says what if there’s occasional dialogue tags. About every five or six lines is probably ideal. Too many dialogue tags can clutter up the page, while too few can force the reader to count back lines to work out who’s talking.
A good alternative to using “said” or another verb is to incorporate descriptions of the character in with the dialogue. For example, just after or before a piece of dialogue, simply describe your character taking some sort of action.
Carrie set the knife on the carpet. “I’ll talk, but only to him.” She pointed with her chin.
“Me?” Steve’s voice cracked.
In the above examples “said” is made redundant, because the reader knows from context who’s speaking. And their attention is on the dialogue and plot, not on the vocabulary.
Said is not dead
Said is not dead. It’s not even resting. “Said” is a fantastic word that lets the reader know who’s talking; it’s one of the most useful words in the English language. There’s no need to throw it out. Do add the occasional “asked” or “whispered” or similar to your arsenal of dialogue tags, when appropriate. Vary your dialogue tags with descriptions of characters acting, which serve to let the reader know who’s talking.
And put your hunger for intelligent language to use by incorporating strong, bold verbs throughout your story. Instead of “walked,” try “strode” “hobbled” or “snuck.” Instead of “moved” consider “lugged” or “shifted.” Don’t lean too much on smiles and eyebrows and fast-beating hearts to convey emotion: experiment with showing feelings in your characters’ tone of voice, their sense of humor, their body language, etc. If you still have extra time to worry about vocabulary, look up the history and exact definitions of your chosen vocabulary and phrases, and make sure you’ve chosen the right words. “Said” should definitely be one of the words you use.
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