Not too long ago now, I wrote a post about Showing and not Telling. While it’s always a good idea to show people what’s happening than tell them it (makes for more interesting reading for one) I didn’t agree with the method my old high school English teacher gave me for trying to stop yourself from telling–don’t use “to be” verbs.
You can read the rest of that post here, but today’s blog is going to focus on a different hotly debated, often hated aspect of writing: The Dreaded “said”.
As someone who’s written a lot of dialogue, I’m sure I have used more than my share of “he/she/I said”s, and I never much thought about it until I started seeing posts like this in the NaNoWriMo forums:
“When I’m writing dialogue, it’s so hard to think of words besides ‘said’.
Does anyone have any websites that could give me, and other writers, lists of words that could be used besides ‘said’?”
And, “300 Ways to Say Said” a post complete with a list of 300 words you can use in tags, from “he/she/it/I accused” to “he/she/it/I yowled”
So, should you worry about using “said” too much in your novel/novella/short story?
Personally I agree with the post following the last of the list, “and ‘said’ is better in 99% of the cases.”
All right, that answer might be a little extreme, but as a whole, I have to say I agree with the sentiment. There is a time and a place to use other words (is your character whispering, yowling, or screaming? Go ahead and say so) but like trying to avoid using “to be” verbs, avoiding “said” to the point where it makes your writing awkward is much, much worse than having a far share of he said, she saids around the page.
1. People are trained to skip reading “said”s. It’s an odd phenomenon, but it’s a real one. Tags are added to dialogue to make sure the reader doesn’t get confused about who’s talking. For example, if Bill, Tom, and Nancy are having a conversation, you can’t have something along the lines of:
“I’m here!” Bill said.
“Took you long enough.”
“Yeah, what took you so long?”
How would anybody know who’s talking? Did Tom say “Welcome” or did Nancy? Is the person who said “Welcome” also asking what took Bill so long, or is there actually a fourth person in the room?
Half of the reason we use tags is just to have the name there. Even without any extra words, it would make more sense if the dialogue read:
Bill, “I’m here!”
Nancy, “Took you long enough.”
Tom, “Yeah, what took you so long?”
That’s basically script format, but it at least tells you who’s speaking. Said is nearly the same equivalent. People glance at the tag long enough to see the name there, and the said tends to roll right off them. Put in other words, though, and their attention starts being draw straight to the tag.
“I’m here!” Bill exclaimed.
“Welcome,” Tom soliloquized.
“Took you long enough,” Nancy scolded.
“Yeah, what took you so long?” Tom contributed.
Maybe you aren’t using said over and over again, but suddenly the attention is on the tag rather than what’s actually being said…and that’s generally a bad thing. (For the record, all of those tags are suggested in the “300 Ways to Say Said” thread).
2. Instead of replacement words, you can tag things with actions. Going back to the first point, let’s look at the words replacing “said”. Ok, let’s keep exclaimed, Bill’s really excited, no reason not to say that. But the others? We can use action tags instead. So, rather than be stuck with “Bill said, Tom said, Nancy said, Tom said” you can have:
“I’m here!” Bill exclaimed.
Tom looked up from his work. “Welcome.”
“Took you long enough,” Nancy said.
“Yeah.” Tom frowned. “What took you so long?”
You still have the names close enough to the tags that you know who’s speaking, but you aren’t using awkward sounding words to keep from using a natural word.
Bonus: You’re showing people rather than telling them. Say you had “Tom scolded” rather than “Tom frowned”. You could do that, but what does scolding really look like? Is he shaking his finger? Frowning? Pursing his lips? ‘Scolded’ doesn’t have a strong picture attached to it. ‘Frowned’ does.
3. People aren’t always yelling/whispering/screaming… There’s a reason using replacement words sound weird when reading dialogue tags–and it’s not just we’re all used to the word said. Words that replace said are often strong ones. If someone is saying something quietly, whispered is probably a better word to use (it means someone’s speaking quietly after all). More than often, though, people tend to just say things. When was the last time you had a conversation where a person was exclaiming, shouting, and yelling everything they were saying in a normal conversation (i.e. not a fight or in a mental ward)? If your characters are having a perfectly nice conversation, but one person keeps whispering, or yelling, or scolding, I’m going to wonder exactly what’s wrong with them. Good if your character is trying to reach Hamlet levels of insane. Not so good if they’re supposed to be rational characters discussing where their friend went.
4. Too often, it feels like you’re trying too hard. As I talked about in my earlier article, “Hey Look! I’m a Writer!” Syndrome, trying to be fancy with your writing doesn’t make you look like a good writer, it makes you look like someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and thus are trying too hard. You shouldn’t be lazy or cavalier about your writing, but that certainly doesn’t mean you have to labor over every word to make sure it fits with every other artistic gem. Just like it’s perfectly fine to say “The sun rose” rather than “The golden orb floated into the azure sky” it’s perfectly fine to say “He said” rather than “He exclaimed with a fervor”. There’s a time and a place for poetic/flamboyant language, but using it just because you don’t want to be boring or think that’s what good writers do is almost always a bad thing.
And so, with everything else with writing, I always say, say what you mean, but don’t make your writing unnatural just because you think you need to be doing something else to be a “good” writer.