Today I am grumpy. It seems one of the most popular search terms for sending people to my blog is “words to use instead of ‘said’.” People, why are you searching for this? What’s wrong with “said”?
I have touched on this in an earlier post, but I want to reiterate. Even in more “colorful” writing than news journalism–even in your Great American Novel–dependable ol’ “said” is your friend.
Alternatives to “said” fall into two categories: impossible and annoying. The first category includes words like “barked,” “hissed,” “hooted,” “pouted,” “smiled.” (Disclaimer: the last two examples came from Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome, which I have only skimmed but looks to be a great page explaining exactly what I’m about to say. (I hate when that happens.))
Why are these words impossible? They are actions, not dialogue tags. Someone can “bark out an order,” “hoot with laughter,” “smile broadly,” but that same person cannot smile a phrase. Technically, hissing is what a snake does, but I’ve seen it used as a tag. If you do, at least make sure your character is using a lot of s’s in his sentence. (You can’t hiss a “hmmm,” for example.)
The second category of “said” alternatives, annoying dialogue tags, are, well, annoying. These are subtler, and easier to trip up on, but they are a clear sign of a novice. These include “responded,” “declared,” “disclosed,” “queried,” “expressed,” and others. Even when used correctly (i.e. don’t use “responded” unless the person is literally responding to a question), when overused, they can become annoying.
In praise of “said”
The most common complaint about “said” is that it’s “boring.” Luckily, its boredom-inducing properties are exactly what makes it so desirable. Think how many times you’ve seen “said” in the last month. How about in the last 24 hours? It’s ubiquitous. It’s so there, it’s not really there at all. The average reader skims right over it, to get to the next juicy bit of your writing. Which is exactly what you want. Throwing in a different dialogue tag throws your readers off, getting them stuck on the weird word you used instead of guiding them gently to your next point.
Fiction writers should be shouting here about “he said, she said” syndrome, which may be the cause of most bad dialogue tags. When you have ten lines of dialogue in a row, going down the page looks like this:
“You’re the Oracle?” he said.
“Bingo. I got to say I love seeing you non-believers. It’s really a relief. All that pomp and circumstances just plain tucker me out. Almost done. Smell good, don’t they?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase,” she said.
“What vase?” he said.
An easy way to solve this problem is to remove the tags altogether.
“You’re the Oracle?”
“Bingo. I got to say I love seeing you non-believers. It’s really a relief. All that pomp and circumstances just plain tucker me out. Almost done. Smell good, don’t they?”
“I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.”
I’m not going to go into more depth with fiction writing techniques because I’m a pretty terrible fiction writer. But this is a pretty good, simple trick that will improve your writing loads. If your characters have distinctive enough voices, it shouldn’t be hard telling them apart even without any dialogue tags. For more help with this, check one of the million sites on the ‘Net dedicated to fiction writing.
Just keep dear old “said” in your hearts and in your keyboards.