Said is not dead.
When I should be writing, I often find myself searching Pinterest for decadent recipes I will never cook and craft projects I will never make. Since my day job is teaching, I often get sucked into the cutesy world of the Education boards, and I keep seeing these lists of synonyms for said. They all have a cute title that reads: Said Is Dead.
(Imagine there is a cute picture here. I am not risking the wrath of a hard-working teacher by criticizing their work.)
Let me repeat it. Contrary to what these popular pins keep claiming, said is not dead. It is alive and well and loved by 99.9999% of readers.
Sometimes we – and by we, I include myself, friends – are so determined to convey every miniscule facet of our story that we think we must paint the very tone of the dialogue, the exact volume, pronunciation. It’s the same thing that drives us to describe every twitch of muscle in a fight scene, or every article of clothing a person wears. And as vividly as we see it, it actually has the opposite effect on readers.
Seriously, tell me how this reads:
“I’m going to kill you,” Mary hissed.
“Not if I can help it!” John asserted.
“Oh, just watch me!” Mary rebutted.
“Nuh-uh!” John squealed.
“By my grandfather’s kilt, I will!” Mary uttered.
And that was with no adverbs! It’s even worse when Mary hisses angrily and John asserts boldly. Those words are so distracting! Not to mention all! The! Exclamation! Points!
I would rather watch the Kardashians than read this, and I really would rather have my eyeballs massaged by fire ants than watch the Kardashians.
One of the late, great Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing was “never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” (Not that he knew anything. He only sold millions of books and wrote forty-five novels that would be made into dozens of movie adaptations including Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma. The FX series Justified is based on a character created by Leonard.)
So what I mean by he didn’t know anything is that he knew a whole lot.
Said is a word that should disappear into the sea of text. When you see it a dozen times, it’s actually a good thing. Your brain no longer notices it, the same way you don’t notice the hum of your refrigerator or the high-pitched whine of your TV when it’s off. (You’re welcome, because I know you just noticed it again.) When the “said” disappears, you get absorbed into the dialogue. Now, I like to amend Leonard’s rule ever so slightly. His writing is fantastic, but everyone’s style is a little different.
Personally, I think it’s okay to slip in the occasional non-said, but only when appropriate. I usually only use words like yelled, whispered, or groaned, and those very sparingly. Simply because there’s no graceful way to show drastic volumes, and sometimes it is important.
Please don’t use words like asserted, argued, or rebutted. If you’re writing your dialogue correctly, those will be implied. “I’ll do it, and you’re not going to say a damn thing about it!” is plenty assertive without a tag. Threatened, demanded, informed are the same deal.
Please, no uttered. This may be my least favorite dialogue tag ever. Utterly unnecessary. Gasped? You cannot gasp words. Gasping is a rapid inhalation. “Four score and seven years ago,” she gasped. Intoned? Inquired? Reasoned? No. No. Bad writer, no coffee.
(At risk of sounding like a total grump, I think there is value in teaching different synonyms for said for vocabulary purposes, and there is a difference between a third grader learning to express their ideas and an adult writing novel-length fiction. Just to clarify.)
As an author, remember that you must be the man behind the curtain. When you start getting cute with your synonyms, it’s like seeing the feet beneath the curtain. If they see you writing, you lose the reader. Let your reader get sucked in, and let the brain work in your favor.
Long live said!by