Friday, April 21, 2017

Said is just fine

Editors say they can pick out an amateur writer in less than one manuscript page when they read stuff like this:

“I hate to admit it,” he grimaced.
“Come closer,” she smiled.

Certainly, nothing is wrong with occasionally using a word such as “shouted” to inject a particular feeling at a particular place.

However, the use of replacement words for "said" should be extremely limited. The word “said” is like a puppeteer; the audience never sees him, but they see immediate evidence of his work in the performance. Like that puppeteer, the word “said,” doesn't stand up shouting for attention, as do such substitutions as “demanded, exclaimed, pronounced, and vocalized.”

“Said” is invisible. “Said” is transparent. Readers don't notice it because they're used to seeing it all the time.

But when you start using alternatives, you draw their attention to the writing and away from the characters and the story.

"Tell me about those things you call 'said bookisms'," she demanded.
"Why?" he queried.
"Because you said you'd respond to questions," she observed.
"Well, I'm not doing it anymore," he hissed.

Look again at that last line of dialog. "Well, I'm not doing it any more," he hissed. There are no esses, cees or zees in the spoken words; by definition, then, it is impossible to hiss the sentence.

Replacements for "said" are outdated and ridiculous. Sadly, some writers still use them. There is actually a writing teacher online who distributes a list of "100 Colorful Words to use in place of "SAID." 
(Please do not read it.)

The word "said" is invisible; the reader's eye skips right over it. A word like "observed" or "hissed" or those other 98 alternatives STOPS the reader. And it only takes a couple of milliseconds to jar a reader out of the story. 

All too often, I have seen a line of dialog that ends with the words, "he nodded." No, no no.

You cannot nod a comment, although you can nod before, during, or after you have delivered the line.

These phrases detract from the story. Your dialog, and the context in which it is delivered should carry the weight of indicating the manner of delivery. Sometimes, the attempt to break away from said goes to insane extremes:

One of my students actually insisted that "'Have a seat,' she observed" was correct usage!
Dialog tags to replace "said" are indications of a weak storyteller.

In fact, words can be spoken in many ways, but they cannot be giggled, laughed, smiled, chuckled, leered, snickered, frowned, or glowered.

The professional writer's rule of thumb is this: 
always use “said” or no tag at all unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise. If you feel compelled to use a tag other than “said” please choose it carefully and do it rarely.

If you feel you must use an alternative to “said” try using an action tag instead of a word. The action tag produces stronger writing by giving the dialog impact.
“John.” Susan touched his arm. “I want to talk to you.”
Because Susan’s action is mentioned between “John” and “I want to talk to you.” readers will naturally and correctly assume that Susan was the person who spoke.

We could also have done this:
Susan's face grew pale. “John, I need to talk to you.”
We can do it with John, too, like this:
His mouth twisted into a sneer. “Really? You never worried about me before.”

One of my favorite novel secrets is the trick of staggering your tags.

I will use a tag before one line of dialog, then put a tag either in the middle of another line of dialog or after it:

She said, “Andy, I love you.” (Tag before.)
“How do you feel about me?” she asked, her hands trembling. (Tag at the end with an attached piece of action.)
“I love you, too,” he said. “But I have things to work out.” (Tag in the middle.)
In fact, I often put the tag in the middle of a sentence just to insert a pause in the speech:
“The bottle with the poison in it was there all along,” Tom said. “She was just too foolish to notice.”

Elmore Leonard did that too. He said, “I use tags mostly for beats, for pauses, rather than for identiļ¬cation.”
Strive to write dialog which sounds like people talking, only better (conversation’s greatest hits) and remember that writing great dialog cannot be taught, but you can learn to write better dialog.
Said is just fine, thank you.

Above from the book NOVEL SECRETS,
available for Kindle for only $.99 cents:

Lary Crews