Kill the Said Bookisms and Dialog Tags

Your high school English teacher was wrong, dead wrong, when she growled, “find another word for said.” 

Your high school English teacher was wrong, dead wrong, when she pointed her finger at you, beady eyes glaring over the rims of her glasses, words barely sneaking past her pursed lips as she said, “find another word for said.”

Déjà vu? Almost. The first is an example of being lazy. The second, description. Alright, alright, so it’s not just laziness, it’s flexing your lexiconical type muscles (so what if that’s not a word) and that’s definitely a good thing. The trouble is, in fiction writing it’s a no-no.

Now, the examples above came from the top of my head (another example of laziness I suppose) but even still I think they illustrate the first point rather nicely. Said bookisms are usually used in an attempt to let the reader do all of the work. Rather than describing the teacher, the mood in the room, her mannerisms, or her tone of voice, the author is hoping that by simply saying “growled” the reader will fill in all the gaps for him.

But look at that picture next to the examples. Are you going to try and tell me that "growled" or "angrily" is going to communicate that face? No way.

On the other hand, by avoiding the said bookism, the author is forced to describe the scene in more detail. The author has to show. And we all know that old rule, Show, Don’t Tell. Said bookisms are telling and eliminating them forces you to show.

Be Realistic
Extreme said bookisms just aren’t realistic. Growled, shrieked, hissed: try to actually do that. Try to growl words. It’s not possible. You’re growling, how could you be talking at the same time? I mean, maybe you could get out a “Grrrrrrreat!” But that’s about it. Everything else would end up coming out like some deranged Smeagle-bear creature voice.

For a list of said bookisms or dialog tags, see the previous post. And please comment with any additions to the list so that we can keep a running tab.

You Can’t See Me
One of the most important reasons for avoiding said bookisms is that ‘said’ by itself is pretty much invisible to the readers eye. Sure, there are those readers out there who allow it to bug the hell out of them, but trust me, they are in the minority. The rest of us gloss over the word ‘said,’ paying attention just long enough to note who happened to be doing the saying. And face it, we should be lingering on what was just said, not the fact that it was growled.

But There Are Just Too Many
If you run into this problem:

“I love you, John,” she said.

“No you don’t,” he said back.

“No, I do. I really, really do,” she said again.

“I heard what you said, but I don’t see it in your eyes,” he said.

Be aware that your problem is not a lack of said bookisms, it’s a lack of pacing in your dialogue. You also don’t have to use the said tags when you have a clear back and forth exchange between two characters.

White Elephants
A famous example of avoiding even the word said, appears in Ernest Hemmingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” (read it here). No really, read it. It’s only three pages long. An excerpt follows: 

The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”

“Anis del Toro. It’s a drink.”

“Could we try it?”

The man called “Listen” through the curtain. The woman came out from the bar.

“Four reales.

“We want two Anis del Toro.”

“With water?”

“Do you want it with water?”

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “Is it good with water?”

“It’s all right.”

“You want them with water?” asked the woman.

“Yes, with water.”

“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.

“That’s the way with everything.”

“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

“Oh, cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

The girl looked across at the hills.

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

Hemmingway does such a fine job of describing the characters through their dialogue that even noting who is speaking can be skipped over in parts. Even with the further complication of the waitress, it remains obvious who is speaking at any given moment. We can also tell that the waitress speaks another language and that Sam is playing translator during the interaction. Now that’s strong dialogue, and strong dialogue will always win out over a carefully chosen said bookism. That brings us to the most important point.

Exceptions to the Rule
Some said bookisms are quieter than others. For instance, whispering or yelling. I think that much of that has to do with the fact that these two words, and those like them, also refer to the volume of one’s voice. Said implies something spoken at a normal volume. To mix a description of a loud or quiet voice with the word said would be contradictory. Such contradictions would once again attract attention where none should be placed.

The windows shook as he said, “Go away. Just go away and leave me in peace.” Are we supposed to be imagining the character yelling or speaking quietly? Is there a gust of wind outside that shakes the windows? I don’t know, you tell me.

Other times you need that little help that a said bookism can lend. Let’s suppose that we have a stretch of dialogue where two characters speak back and forth. The dialogue may need to be tight in order to keep the pacing right; therefore, we can’t use a great deal of description to communicate anything beyond what is said in dialogue.

“I love you with all my heart,” he lied. In this set of circumstances, were we to eliminate the said bookism altogether, the reader would have been left to guess at the speaker’s intentions. But it only works because of a convergence of circumstances that cause it to be required.

Don’t Be Fooled: Adverbial Tags
Okay, so I can’t use ‘growled.’ I’ll just use, “he said angrily.”

That’s an adverbial tag, and sorry, that’s still cheating. Your dialogue and the character’s actions should be communicating that anger, not the adverb. If the anger is not communicated through these preferred avenues it’s time to go back and rewrite it so that they do.

Now, what happens when we read adverbial tags? We’re cruising along, reading the dialog, “I think you should leave,” everything is going just fine and then comes, she said angrily. My eye likely skipped ahead far enough to know that the said was coming, but not the angrily. Oh crap, I think, I was supposed to read that angrily. So I stop and reread the words because when I read them the first time I read them the way I thought they should sound. Now the great director of the story is telling me to try again. Take two.

As the reader, I’ve just hit a speed bump. Not only am I rereading things, I’m also questioning exactly how angrily sounds, so I might reread it more than once. After that, I might even question the director’s instructions.

Remember, an adverb in most cases, even when not a part of dialogue, is nothing more than a shortcut. It’s a copout for stronger writing. The emphasis should be on the verb. If that action needs to be better described, describe it, don’t try to get an adverb to do all the work for you. While that’s not always the case with adverbs, it is pretty much always the case with adverbial tags related to said. So carefully watch how you delicately place them into sentences.

But So and So Does It

If so-and-so jumped off of a cliff would you jump too? I’m sure that there are plenty of examples out there of published authors who ignore these rules. Some do it consciously. They know the rules and how to break them, and they are doing it for a reason. For instance, you’ll see said bookisms in comedic writing. If you really want what you are writing to have an immature feel, than by all means, use them.

You also see them in romance a lot. I’m not quite sure if it has to do with the reader being expected to incorporate a very active imagination and therefore not need the description, or if it’s just bad writing. There are a lot of bad writers out there that somehow got published. We’re better than that though.

Dialogue Is Paramount

The most important words on any page filled with dialogue had better be the dialogue itself; otherwise you need to ask yourself why it is even there. When you use said bookisms you are giving a single word a bullhorn and letting it yell, “look at me, look at me.” They both distract and detract from what is being said. Dialogue is so much more powerful than that.

Look at the Hemingway example again. Did you notice the point where the girl tried her drink? Did you have to be told she was trying her drink, or that the drinks were set on the table? I’ll go more into the power of dialogue in another post, but for now I just want you to keep that idea in your mind. Remember how powerful dialogue can be and you’ll be less likely to disrespect it with said bookisms.

What counts is not what is said but the effect of what is meant.  Sol Stein, “Stein on Writing”



Anonymous said...

My 8th grade teacher taught us that the words "said" and "asked" were, as she put it, "dead words." She even had a huge paper tombstone on the wall with them written on it as a reminder not to use them. What's worse is that she loved, LOVED adverbs and gerunds and encouraged them in profusion. (Which is why I've had to since relearn how to write.)

Oh, I wish I could go back and smack some of those silly teachers over their heads with Hemingway and Twain.

Mark Twain once said about adverbs, "I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't."
- "Reply to a Boston Girl," Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

(I am convinced Twain was the inventor of snark.)

David Noceti said...

You crack me the heck up. And Twain was a genius. Have you memorized every quote he ever uttered . . . er, I mean, wrote? :)

Anonymous said...

:D Not all of them, but I do know a goodly number of Twainisms.

If only my writing measured up to his baby toe nail ...

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