Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Basics: The Invisible "Said"

My husband is not a big reader. (Gasp!) So when his mom handed him a book written by a friend of hers, he was not inclined to read it.  Not even to be polite.

So, naturally, he handed it to me.

Admittedly, I wrinkled my nose.  The book was published by PublishAmerica.  (This is something you never want to do.  Never.)  For the uninitiated, PublishAmerica is a vanity press.  You pay them a lot of money and they print your book.

So I knew immediately that the book had not been professionally edited and would probably...well, stink.

(Disclaimer:  Self publishing is a viable option for authors.  I self-published a non-fiction book before I started writing fiction.  But PublishAmerica is BAD NEWS.  'Nuff said.)

Anyway, I didn't exactly read the book.  I sort of skimmed through.  And, yeah.  It sucked.  I can't comment on the plot, since the skim was just that.  A thin, quick, oh-my-stars-is-this-bad skim.  So I can only comment on the writing.

You know what stuck out the most?  The author's nearly complete avoidance of the word SAID.  As though it were a bad word.

What did I see instead?

She exclaimed.
He retorted.
She shouted.
He declared.
She screamed.
He demanded.

You know.  All the ridiculously over-descriptive words that want to be, simply, "said."

Want to know something else interesting?  The author was a retired English teacher.

I shudder to think of the HUNDREDS of writing students she trained, over the years, to avoid the word "said" in their creative writing.

Here's the thing about the tiny word "said":  It's invisible.  We know the characters in a novel are SPEAKING when we see quotation marks.  We don't need a lot of reminders that that's what they're doing.  "Said", when used sparingly, melts into the background, reminding us gently that, yes, the characters are having a conversation.

That's what it's meant to do.  That's how we need to use it.


Of course, one can overdo.  We don't need to see this:

"I'm so embarrassed," Dee said.
"You should be," Mary said.
"I mean, what was I thinking?" Dee said.
"Exactly," Mary said.
"And he'll probably never talk to me again," Dee said.
"Probably," Mary said.

Yeah.  That's ridiculous, right?  We don't need a "said" after every line of dialogue.  What we DO need is a beat or two.  You know; those little bits that add some action to the exchange, let us know a little more about our characters' state of mind:

Dee pressed her palm against her forehead.  "I'm so embarrassed."
"You should be," Mary said.
"I mean, what was I thinking?"
"Exactly." Mary started toward the exit.
"And he'll probably never talk to me again," Dee said, following.


Of course, there are always occasions when a word other than said is called for.  Naturally, you don't want to do this very often.  As in, almost never.  The one exception to "almost never" is the word ASK.  Because when your character needs to ask a question, he is, technically, ASKING and not SAYING.  So you're allowed to write,

"What's bothering you?" he asked.

Other "occasional use" words include:

WHISPER  (When there's absolutely no other way to describe it.)
YELL or SHOUT (When there's absolutely no other way to describe it.)

You get the idea.

In short, be judicious about your use of words-other-than-said.  Sometimes a delicious synonym will be JUST RIGHT for the moment.

"Sleep now," she murmured.

And sometimes a synonym will NOT be delicious.  It will be ridiculous.

"I'm leaving now," she verbalized.


Another mistake new-ish writers tend to make is to attribute impossible actions to characters in what is yet another avoidance of the beautiful, invisible "said."  For example:

"I don't believe you," he laughed.

One cannot "laugh" the words, "I don't believe you."  Go ahead. Try.

"You're not serious!" she gasped.

Nope.  Gasping an entire sentence isn't something most normal people can do.

"It really hurts," he groaned.

Um, no.  A groan is a low, guttural sound.  He might groan first and THEN speak. But not both at once.

"You're such an idiot!" he guffawed.

Okay.  I'm having too much fun here.


"Said" is your friend.  Use it without trepidation.  Do not over-use it.  And don't let your English teacher talk you into using six hundred synonyms in order to avoid "said".  With all due respect, that is the worst possible advice on dialogue that she could give you.

Or he.  Not to be sexist or anything.

And now you're ready to write some sparkling dialogue!

Oh, wait.  We'll have to talk about Dorky Dialogue next...


  1. EXCELLENT post. I learned something from this, so thank you.

  2. This helped more than you could imagine. :) Thanks SO much for the post.

    '"You're such an idiot!" he guffawed.

    Okay. I'm having too much fun here.' <--- This one made me laugh out loud. :)

  3. My fourth grade teacher actually gave everyone a huge list of synonyms for 'said.' I have many a ridiculous first draft due to that hand-out, rife with exclaimed, answered, questioned, queried, retorted, rejoined, ect. And more points for the widest array of choice verbs. My favorite, that I've actually seen in print? Conjectured. It sounds wannabe sophisticated, but is just overdone and wrong. =) Great post!

  4. To be honest, I'm not surprised that she was an English teacher. :P

    Amanda- One of my teachers did the same thing in elementary school! :)

    I've seen "growled" used in (good) published books, and I think it might work occasionally. Everybody knows that people don't growl; it's just a way to show how the character is saying it. Kind of an exaggeration.

    I've seen some pretty bad said-isms in published books, but none that I can remember off the top of my head.