03 February 2018

"I said, 'He said,'" she said.

We all know there's plenty of room for disagreement in the writing/publishing world: literary vs. genre, characters vs. plot, outlining vs. pantsing, showing vs. telling, first-person vs. third-, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, past tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. (Thomas Pluck's SleuthSayers column yesterday, mostly about POV issues, is a good example.) One of my favorite discussions, though, is the one about using/avoiding the word "said."
There is apparently a movement now to declare "said" an obsolete word. Its proponents insist that the word is unemotional, boring, and unsophisticated, and that there are many better words we can substitute. The movement's loudest cheerleader, I've heard, is a California middle-school teacher who published a successful book on the subject, and a lot of other educators and writers have climbed onto that bandwagon. One article suggested replacing "said" with "more colorful words like barked, howled, demanded, cackled, snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, or cried."

Elmore Leonard is probably spinning in his grave. One of the commandments in his 10 Rules of Writing was "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." "Never" seems a little extreme, but I think his point was that "said" is a transparent word--the reader's eye skips right over it. Flowery synonyms for "said" can do the opposite of what I as a fiction writer want to do: they can distract the reader from the story itself, and make him or her think about the writing and the writer rather than what's written. I read somewhere that "said"--and probably "asked" as well--is more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's unobtrusive.

Also, some substitutes for "said" seem to try to explain or clarify things too much. In the sentence "Get out," she demanded, the attribution verb is redundant--we can see that it's a demand. Same thing with "I beg you," he pleaded or "I feel terrible," she moaned. And believe me, I've seen this in a lot of students' stories. It's amateurish overwriting at best and ("I saw you," he observed) hilarious at worst.

Besides Dutch Leonard (I really miss him, by the way), there are other prominent writers who seem/seemed to prefer the word "said" over its synonyms: Larry McMurtry, Ed McBain, Robert B. Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Child, Joe R. Lansdale, Janet Evanovich, Dennis Lehane, Raymond Chandler, Martin Cruz Smith, Stephen King, William Goldman, and John Sanford, to name a few.

I've rounded up several quotes on this issue of "said" avoidance:

". . . Don't tell me your character 'excaimed,' 'stated,' or 'replied.' When in doubt, just use 'said.' That's all. Maybe they 'answered.' They certainly did not 'retort.' You can use 'said' more often than you think . . . it's one of those words that takes a while before it starts sounding repetitive."
-- Ariel Gore, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead

"The best form of dialogue attribution is 'said,' as in 'he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said."
-- Stephen King, On Writing

"Mr. [Robert] Ludlum . . . hates the 'he said' locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom 'say' anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: '"I repeat," repeated Alex.' The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk."
-- Newgate Callender, in The New York Times Book Review

"Editors and critics often refer to melodramatic dialogue tags as 'said bookisms.' They know that these phrases give our story an amateurish look. Your readers might not know what the darn things are called, but chances are that they'll notice them, too . . . In most cases, the word 'said' would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue."
-- Ann M. Marble, "'Stop Using Those Said Bookisms,' the Editor Shrieked."

"[Say is] just too simple and clear and straightforward for many people. Why say something when you can declare, assert, expostulate, whine, exclaim, groan, peal, breathe, cry, explain, or asseverate it? I'm all for variety and freshness of expression, but let's not go overboard."
-- Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

". . . Some teachers, teachers who were themselves not writers, used to warn against the monotony of the word 'said.' This was wrong-headed advice."
-- Rick Demarinis, The Art & Craft of the Short Story

"In journalism circles, said is a virtue--simple, precise, and unadorned--and alternatives to it are considered frilly and silly. You don't have to agree, but be aware that lots of editors hold this view. Choose your alternatives to said with great care."
--June Casagrande, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

"We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always 'said.' The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than 'said' tend to draw attention away from the dialogue."
--Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

You can tell which side of the argument I'm on, here--I prefer "said," and, if asked, "asked"--but I'm not a sign-waving activist. I tend to throw in some whispers, shouts, and murmurs when I feel like it. And, in all fairness, there are a lot of excellent and successful authors, among them J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, Salman Rushdie, Nevada Barr, John Irving, Patricia Cornwell, and Jan Karon, who regularly frolic in the synonymial daisies of dialogue attribution and come out smelling just fine. Bottom line is, there'll always be writers who love "said," writers who avoid it like Kryptonite, and writers who lobby for verb diversity. It's just another of those debatable issues of style where some things work for some and not for others.

"The choice is yours," he intoned.


  1. Good column, John. I agree about "said." But I use "asked" and, when appropriate, tags that provide information the dialogue itself doesn't show, which usually is volume, i.e., words such as whisper and yell.

  2. Thanks, Barb--good point. As I mentioned, I too sometimes have my characters whispering or shouting. Another example might be to use a tag that suggests something other than what the reader might expect, like "What a great day," he grumbled. But I usually find that if the dialogue's good enough, the descriptive tags just aren't needed.

  3. When i first began wrting I made a long list of words to use instead of said. It didn't take long for me to thow away that list. Said or nothing if there's only two people talking in a scene. During the few times I edited a magazine, my favorite example of bad came with the opening line, "Get out!!!" he ejaculated. I mean, come on. Three exclamation points.

  4. This is one of my own pet peeves in writing workshops, John. Too often I see evidence of students with thesaurus in hand (or online) as they work through their dialogue tags: argued, exclaimed, cried, exhorted, amended, replied. Worse are those words that aren't even synonyms for said but actions in addition to the dialogue: he laughed, she sighed. Like you, I'll occasionally sub one in myself ("whispered" is a good example, as you point out), but generally, I'm pretty straightforward about it--and when possible try to avoid at all, either letting the dialogue do all the work of identifying speaker (the best dialogue will) or having a sentence of some action in place of the dialogue tag to "tag" the speaker in its own way--and maybe enhance the scene overall. (Mario Vargas Llosa took this purposefully to some extremes in his novel Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, though I wish he or the translator had used periods instead of commas throughout--give it a look.)

  5. So you asseverate, Floyd.

    No, wait, doesn't sound right. Um, so you exclaim, Mr. Floyd.

    No, still clumsy. How about: So you retort, Floyd-o.

    Damn, no, terrible.

    Okay, fine, so you say, John.

    Yeah, actually, that is better, isn't it?

  6. I agree, John.

    When I was involved in theater (generally four or five productions a year), we used to comment on the plays where stage directions told the actor how to deliver the line. I always said that if the actor can't tell from the context, the line is poorly written. The same is true in narration. If the reader can't tell that the speaker snarled, bellowed, whined or whatever, the dialogue isn't clear.

    I still remember the first time I read Conrad's Lord Jim. I had to re-read the first two pages because the prose was so exquisite I got caught up in that instead of the story. That's both good and bad, and I see it in literary fiction all the time. We end up paying attention to the brilliance of the writer's vocabulary instead of the story he PURPORTS to tell.

    I've used the Ludlum review excerpt in my dialogue workshops, too.

    "Said" is my default dialogue word. And asked.

    'Nuff asserted.

  7. I teach my students that said is almost invisible to readers. Which is good, in this case. They read the dialogue, catch the name of the speaker, and don't trip over the verb. If you say 'exclaimed' or other verbs, the readers has to read that, because they aren't expecting that word. It slows the dialogue. But like all rules, there are times when it's good to do that. I tell my students, know the rules. And then decide when it's in your interest to break them.

  8. O'Neil, that IS a great example. A silly synonym and extra exclamation points do not a good impression make, on an editor. And yes, when there are only two speakers, the need for any dialogue tags is reduced--so long as the reader doesn't lose track of who's saying what.

    Art, I'm glad you mentioned other ways of identifying speakers. Inserting names into the dialogue itself certainly works, and those little beats of action. If Joe is scratching his chin in the same paragraph as his dialogue, you probably don't need a "Joe said"--and certainly not a "Joe ejaculated."

    Josh, I actually once saw a "he asseverated," in a class story. And 'retort" is one of those synonyms I especially hate to see. The funny thing is, many beginning writers seem to try really hard to never use ANY dialogue attributions. At all. And after awhile that can become almost as distracting as the bad attributions.

    Well said, Steve: the same IS true in narration. And even though I loved the Ludlum books, and own every one of them, he had a lot of quirks. One was a reluctance to repeat a name. He'd say things like "Bourne ran down the street, and then Jason turned and fired a shot," even though he was talking about the same guy. That got to be especially confusing when there were a bunch of characters sitting at a conference table and he'd keep switching between the first and last names (and titles) of the attendees. But I sure loved the plots.

    Melodie, that's always the case, isn't it?--Learn the rules, THEN break them when appropriate. Sounds like a lot of y'all agree on this "said" issue. I think it's one of those things editors really watch for.

  9. While choice of attribution verb is important in a dialog tag—I favor "said" but occasionally use others—placement of the dialog tag can be just as important, and it is rarely discussed. Many writers routinely stick dialog tags at the end:

    "Good morning, Sara," Bob said.
    "Good morning to you, too," Sara said.

    While "said is almost invisible to readers," to quote Melodie, it isn't completely invisible, and the use and placement of any dialog tag impacts the rhythm of a sentence.

    Consider this famous bit (well, famous to those of us of a certain age) and examine how placement of the dialog tag impacts how you read and "hear" it:

    "Take my wife. Please," he said.

    He said, "Take my wife. Please."

    "Take my wife," he said. "Please."

    By interrupting the dialog with a dialog tag, a longer pause than that implied by the period is created and the punchline is stronger because of it.

    This is especially important to consider at the end of a scene or the end of a story.

    Writers craft an engaging, witty, or significant bit of dialog to end a scene or story and then drop a turd on it by putting a dialog tag at the end, killing the impact and destroying the rhythm.

    For example (and excuse me for not being brilliant, witty, or significant off the top of my head):

    Sara has waited through 5,000 words for Bob to tell her what she longs to hear and gets this:

    Bob held Sara's hands and stared deep into her eyes. "I love you," he said.

    The two-word dialog tag tacked on the end steps on the story's punchline.

    Better options include:

    Bob held Sara's hands, stared deep into her eyes, and said. "I love you."


    Bob held Sara's hands and stared deep into her eyes. "I love you."

    Thus, choice of attribution verb is important when crafting dialog tags, but so is placement of dialog tags.

  10. Great point, Michael! I always see students as well who have trouble with placement of those tags--both in terms of the rhythm of a sentence (of an effect, of an emotion) and in terms of simply letting a reader know who's speaking. Too often, I'll see long (loooong) paragraphs of dialogue--where you only discover at the very end who's actually saying those words. So easy to just insert a tag after the first sentence, and let the monologue continue, a little more grounded.

  11. Michael and Art -- Great thoughts, here. Yes, I often tell students that inserting a dialogue tag in the right place can be a great way to control the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph. And can sometimes even cause a pause that'll allow you to change the subject while staying with the same speaker. "It's been good seeing you again," he said. "There, that's my house, on the left."

    Using tags to do more than just ID the speaker is yet another writing tool, right?

  12. The prohibition against anything but said drives me crazy. English is a big, beautiful language and I reserve the right to use all of it. My characters usually say, but sometimes they ask, they answer, they respond, they tell him or her. They even very occasionally complain, tease or joke. Come and get me, Word Police.

  13. Barb, you most certainly have the right to use all of it. As mentioned, this is just one of those issues where everyone has his or her own opinion. I do occasionally have my characters scream or mutter or whatever seems best at the time. I think OVERuse of that kind of thing is what most of us are talking about.

    I'll send the Word Police right over to your address.

  14. LOL, I usually don't use tags at all if there are only two people in a conversation. In the story I was talking about yesterday, in a two-person conversation, I said one of the characters thundered. This was because he was extremely old & soft-spoken & I wanted the reader to realize he was completely cranked up.

  15. Liz, I'll have the Word Police stop by your address, too.

    The strange thing is, I do use tags now and then when only two people are talking, for the very reason we mentioned earlier: it can sometimes help the rhythm of what's being said. I can't resist thoughts of Larry McMurtry, here. In Lonesome Dove he used "said" constantly, and at times it certainly wasn't needed. He sometimes even used it when the reader had no doubt at all who the speaker was. And, hey, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Just differences in style.

  16. I'm with those who go with "said." Even though a little variety may be appropriate ("shouted," "yelled," "sobbed," "whispered") depending on the situation, he said. :)

  17. "I agree with Jeff," he agreed.

    By the way, here's what I think is an interesting example from the novel Worst Fears, by Fay Weldon. (I found it in Spunk & Bite, by Arthur Plotnik.) Alternating "said" with other descriptive tags seems to work well here:

    "You prurient old cow!" shouted Alexandra.
    "I understand your anger," said Leah.
    "No one understands my anger!" shrieked Alexandra.
    "This session is at an end," said Leah.


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