Is ‘Said’ Really Dead?

I read an article yesterday that claimed use of the word ‘said’ is dead. For some reason, authors are being encouraged to steer clear of it’s usage and turn instead to other words that might better describe how whatever is being said. For instance, whisper describes how the speaker is talking. Bellowed not only describes tone, but also the character’s mood. Therefore, the article seemed to be advocating the death of ‘said’, which is a non-descriptor, by enriching your writing through the use of other dialogue tags. Meme lists abound all over google that provide 200+ words that could be used instead of plain, ol’ said. Because said is dead.

Well, I am writing this to say SAID is NOT dead. In fact, if you follow that advice, you run a serious risk of creating a novel that reads like a 1950s Dick Tracy comic book. Meaning, campy and over-the-top,  a work that no one reading it would take seriously. Sorry, Harvey Comics. Not sorry, to whomever authored that incredibly bad piece of advice. In fact, not only am I not sorry, but you owe every reader who bought into that horrible statement a Coke and an apology.
Said is NOT dead. Yes, you should keep that list of 200+ other ways to say SAID handy and use it SPARINGLY as a way to enrich your story by turning your dialogue tags into descriptions on your character’s tone and emotions. Did you notice my use of the word ‘sparingly’ up there? That’s because I personally believe that roughly 70% of your dialogue should include a dialogue tags (and yes, I did just pull that percentage out of my ass) and only 70% of that should be SAID. Why?
  • Because if you don’t use SAID and only use descriptors, then your book will read as if it were written for angsty teenagers, by an angsty teenager without any grasp on how real emotions work or how to incorporate them into their WIPs.
  • Because when a reader is lost in a story, their eye will pass right over SAID, but still cue in on the important stuff: what is being said and who is saying it.
  • Because sometimes characters just need to talk, damn it, without all the fripperies that can bog down a dialogue scene.

Let me give you an example:

Example One:

“I hate coming up with examples,” she announced.

“I know,” he commiserated. “But, sometimes it’s necessary.”

“To who?” she exclaimed. “Who’s even going to read this?”

“Oh,” he chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll get one or two readers.”

“Bet I don’t,” she complained.

“Besides,” he continued, “you’re making a point. Points should be made whether anyone reads it or not.”

She scoffed. “You’re just saying that because you’re a sadist and you get sick enjoyment out of making me do things I don’t like to do.”

“No,” he drawled. “I’m saying it because it’s true.” He smirked. “Being a sadist does make it more fun, though.”

Okay, I’m lousy at examples, but you get the point. It reads clunky and all the expostulating is ridiculous. In a normal story, you wouldn’t use a dialogue tag every time your character speaks, but if you use nothing but descriptor tags, your entire book will read this way.

However, swap it around. You can kind of see what the author of ‘said is dead’ was trying to say.

Example Two:

“I hate coming up with examples,” she said.

“I know,” he said. “But, sometimes it’s necessary.”

“To who?” she asked. “Who’s even going to read this?”

“Oh,” he chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll get one or two readers.”

“Bet I don’t,” she said.

“Besides,” he said, “you’re making a point. Points should be made whether anyone reads it or not.”

She scoffed. “You’re just saying that because you’re a sadist and you get sick enjoyment out of making me do things I don’t like to do.”

“No,” he said. “I’m saying it because it’s true.” He smirked. “Being a sadist does make it more fun, though.”

If you only use SAID (apart from the obvious deviations), then it can still ruin an otherwise decent dialogue exchange. So, if SAID is not dead, how then should it be used? In my opinion, these are the rules that authors should follow when using dialogue tags:

  • If it’s not a question, use SAID.
  • Does a descriptor need to be used? If yes, use a descriptor (whispered, breathed, scoffed, laughed, yelled, etc…). If no, use SAID.
  • Is a dialogue tag necessary at all? Are there more than two people involved in the conversation? If yes, don’t go more than two lines (and by line, I mean switching back and forth between speakers, not sentences) without a dialogue tag. It quickly becomes difficult for readers to keep straight who’s saying what. If no, use dialogue tags sparingly.
  • Can you use an action instead of a dialogue tag? If yes, don’t use SAID or anything else, use the action instead. People almost never just stand around talking. Your book is a movie in the head of the reader. Let your characters move.

Example Three:

“I hate coming up with examples,” Jill said.

“I know.” Sorting through the mail, Ben kept two and dropped the rest in the trash. “But, sometimes it’s necessary.”

“To who? Who’s even going to read this?”

He chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll get one or two readers.”

Pouting, she scowled. “Bet I don’t.”

“Besides, you’re making a point. Points should be made whether anyone reads it or not.”

She scoffed. “You’re just saying that because you’re a sadist and you get sick enjoyment out of making me do things I don’t like to do.”

“No, I’m saying it because it’s true.” He smirked and swatted her for no reason other than the tactile pleasure of her butt in his hand. “Being a sadist does make it more fun, though.”

 

 

2 thoughts on “Is ‘Said’ Really Dead?

  1. Too many tags period ruin the whole scene, but if I want to make conversation flow, the words should do the talking not the tags. I don’t slow at the tag “said” but if there are more than one or two other, unless describing actions, movements, thoughts, does slow me down.

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