On Dialogue: ‘Said’ Is Perfectly Fine. Leave It Alone.

Let’s talk about that Wall Street Journal article, shall we?

It went mildly viral a few weeks ago, and not for a good reason.

In a nutshell, the article is about a few teachers who are trying to get students to stop using “dead” words like “good,” “bad,” “fun,” and “said.”

From the article:

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

Dear god.

There’s a reason why we use “said” in writing. It’s an invisible word. Loading it with too many modifiers or replacing it with something else can often be distracting, and you run into the risk of Tom Swifties.

“We just struck oil!” Tom gushed

is probably my favorite example from that page.

The Harry Potter books, as much as I love them, are guilty of this. Harry doesn’t just simply “say” something. He shouts, mutters, screams. Ron even ejaculated once (oh my). Harry, Hermione, and Ron say things peevishly, loudly. Dumbledore speaks wisely. Snape slowly. And so on.

Look, most writers do modify their “saids” once in a while, but they do it for a specific reason. They want to leave no ambiguity about how their character is speaking.

But wait, you might be saying, why not do that all the time?

The truth is, if you’re writing dialogue well, you don’t need to.

“Stop right there!” (do you need to clarify that the speaker is shouting?)

“You’re really fucking pissing me off.” (do you need to clarify that the speaker is mad?)

When you’re going through your manuscript, watch out for these modifiers, and get rid of them. As many as you can. Keep only the ones that are absolutely, positively, necessary. Otherwise, you can just use “said” for 99% of the time and your work will be that much better for it.

Some authors think that using “said” almost exclusively will get repetitive, but that’s the beautiful thing – “said” is damn-near invisible. Look at this exchange from Doomsday Book by Connie Willis:

 “Badri collided with her on the way back to the net,” Dunworthy said.

“Are you absolutely certain?” Mary said.

He pointed at the woman’s friend, who had sat down now and was filling out forms. “I recognize the umbrella.”

“What time was that?” she said.

“I’m not positive. Half past one?”

“What type of contact was it? Did he touch her?”

“He ran straight into her,” he said, trying to recall the scene. “He collided with the umbrella, and then he told her he was sorry, and she yelled at him for a bit. He picked up the umbrella and handed it to her.”

“Did he cough or sneeze?”

“I can’t remember.”

The woman was being wheeled into Casualties. Mary stood up. “I want her put in Isolation,” she said, and started after them.

See? It was used 5 times in that short a span, and if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t have noticed.

“But Bart, that scene had no passion. Nobody was expressing emotions. Where’s the shouting?” How about this:

“What’s the meaning of this?” Gilchrist said. “What are you doing here?”

“I”m going to bring Kivrin through,” Dunworthy said.

“On whose authority?” Gilchrist said. “This is Brasenose’s net, and you are guilty of unlawful entry.”

“You have no right to speak to me that way,” Gilchrist said. “And no right to be in this laboratory. I demand that you leave immediately.”

Dunworthy didn’t answer. He took a step toward the console.

“Call the proctor,” Gilchrist said to the porter. “I want them thrown out.”

See? If it’s good enough for a Hugo, Nebula-award winning author, it’s good enough for you. Because I said so.

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