“He said… that you said… that I said…”
Pick up a writing guide and somewhere in there, you’re probably going to find the advice, “Don’t use ‘he said’, ‘she said’, etc.” Now, these writing guides aren’t warning you against the evils of gossip. No, their exhortations have another aim.
But if you’ve been in the writing world long enough, you’ve probably learned that for every piece of advice out there, there’s another one that contradicts it. Should we, after all, avoid the word said in our writing? Or should we embrace it?
First of all, let’s look at the reasons why people tell you to avoid said.
1. “It’s not descriptive enough.”
Why use said when you have a host of other verbs at your disposal to get your character’s dialogue across more clearly? gasped, muttered, barked, interjected, stuttered, bellowed — The writing guides will pepper you with these verbs, and direct you to the thesaurus to find more. These people want you to spice up your writing, to make it pop with the best it has to offer. Don’t stop at the ten-cent said when you could have the quality $1 announced!
2. “It pulls the reader out of the story.”
The push towards showing versus telling is a big one. Readers want to be immersed in the story, and — so goes the argument — words such as said, felt, thought, was jerk them back to being spectators rather than being one with the character. These people are likely to tell you that, rather than picking more attractive alternatives to said, you should get rid of your dialogue tags altogether. No more of this “he mumbled”, “she spat” business. Action tags are your friend now!
(For those who want layman’s terms, action tags refer to a speaker’s action included on its own before or after the dialogue: “She watched the tiger closely.”)
Now, this advice is good insofar as it’s… advice. But let me talk about the problems that surface when it’s laid down as hard-and-fast rule.
Argument #1 (Descriptive), for instance, while it may expand your vocabulary, is at its core very weak. There are two reasons behind this.
First of all, it diminishes the value of the dialogue itself.
“Get back over here!” he shouted.
Everything we need to know about this dialogue is inside the quotation marks. The words imply a raised, impatient, possibly angry voice, and the exclamation point leaves no room for doubt. With context, the reader’s experience would be complete. Said might be an inadequate word here but shouted is pitifully redundant. When the writer is told to substitute flowery words for the simplicity of said, the reader ends up force-fed the intent of the dialogue instead of being able to infer it through the words themselves.
Second of all, it can draw unwanted attention to the descriptor.
Some readers like to revel in luxuriant descriptions. I, for one, find character depictions thoroughly fascinating. But nobody really likes to revel in a dialogue tag. Which is why, when you come across a sentence like, “How do you do?” she grimaced — you might just end up squinting at the sentence with an indefinable feeling of discomfort. Do people really speak in grimaces? Was this supposed to be an action tag that didn’t get capitalized by accident? What on earth does a grimace sound like?
Variety is great, but too much variety gets… weird. Sometimes the earthy familiarity of said, added, answered can be a welcome respite from the dubious realm of giggled and suggested (I have seen suggested used in the most cringeworthy places).
But shouldn’t we follow argument #2 (Immersive) and eschew dialogue tags altogether, if everything can be inferred from dialogue and, if necessary, an action tag?
I won’t say not to. This rule has far less potential for misuse than #1. You can follow it zealously and become an engaging, even excellent writer.
“Where’s your but, Verity?”
But… you miss out on variety.
Think about a conversation where every sentence is ended with “he/she said”. The horror, right? That’s where rules like these originated — to combat the repetitive drone on our rhythm-demanding ear.
But think of another conversation, one where the brief snippets of conversation are broken only by more sentences of similar length.
Sandy nodded. “I see what you mean.”
“Don’t worry; we’ll get there soon.” Fred patted her arm.
“Where are we going?” Marjorie hurried up.
“To town.” Fred pointed to the small cross on the map.
A little tiresome? No? Maybe? Just a little? A dialogue tag would have been useful in any one of those paragraphs to relieve the monotone rhythm.
Finally, consider that the immersive style isn’t for everyone. The trends lean that way now, but they haven’t always done so, and the English language has too much potential to enforce just one way of doing things.
You, for instance, might aim for a more archaic vibe in your writing, in which case the simple said would actually be a better alternative! Will it distract readers? If it’s consistent with your tone, and used prudently, I would argue no. The reader is there for the story. If you can weave a good story, he will not find your said’s intrusive; in fact, he will probably not notice them at all.
In Defense of Said
Said is not for every situation. But sometimes, it just works. You have every right, as a writer, to utilize the full spectrum of English syntax. No need to blacklist a word like said because it’s not as decorative as others. Its invisibility can let it guide the reader’s ear in places where a prettier word would have broken the focus. If you need to remind the reader who’s speaking, a simple “Sandy said” can give one of those subtle cues without breaking the conversation by a distracting action tag.
Yes, said can be overused. And so can anything else. If we banned all things that could be overused… we wouldn’t have any words left to write with!
The trick with writing rules is all of them can be broken. No piece of advice applies to every situation and the more specific it gets, the fewer situations it will apply to. For instance, a preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with. Yet I just did it twice in a row, managed to communicate my ideas clearly, and in doing so avoided adding two extra words to my paragraph. Likewise, with said, there is a sweet middle ground.
Don’t be afraid to use that middle ground.