10/26/2015

Said

In his enlightening book On Writing Stephen King makes a passionate endorsement for the word "said", advising writers to use it in preference to any of its many synonyms.  But, being a writer, not an editor, he doesn't do much to back up his endorsement.

I'm often asked about the word "said".  It's something a lot of writers have trouble digesting, and some even reject the common wisdom outright.  However, I do have an opinion on the matter, and as usual it's a strong one.


I pretty much agree with Uncle Stevie on this one, but On Writing is not the first place I encountered this tip.  My favorite book on the craft; Dave King and Renni Browne's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers touches on this also.  Their argument is two-fold: first, avoiding the unadorned "said" often forces your character into a physical impossibility.  One does not "gasp" a sentence.  A gasp is, by its very definition, not a sentence.  Second, fancy synonyms for "said" always catch you in the act of stuffing character emotion into what should be a purely mechanical device.  Character emotions do not belong in speaker attributions, they should be present in the dialogue itself.  If that's not possible (and it sometimes isn't), emotion belongs in the pieces of body language surrounding the dialogue (what I call "beats".  More about beats in this post).

Speaker attributions are a mechanical device, and they have but one humble purpose: to identify the speaker.  Ideally, they should be thought of almost like punctuation.  And everyone agrees that over-punctuating makes you look desperate to get your point across!!! Don't you agree???

The beauty of "said" is that it's transparent.  The reader doesn't really even see the word.  Assuming they're sufficiently focused on the story (and not the words on the page) their mind will instantaneously substitute the speaker's identity, and the attribution will have done its job without ever calling attention to itself.  In my opinion, this kind of transparency is the most noble goal a writer can have.

Because "said" is so transparent, anything else in its place becomes conspicuous.  In general, we don't want readers to focus on our words, we want them in the story.  But used properly, the conspicuousness of another verb can actually work to your advantage, provided you aren't using it as a crutch to prop up weak dialogue.

Personally, I feel free to use any verb that denotes the volume, tone, or (occasionally) cadence of a speaker's voice.  Shouted, whispered, whined, or blurted will sometimes find their way into my work, but I use them sparingly because I know that every one is a risk.  Any verb in place of "said" has the ability to knock the reader out of the story, and make them focus on the word itself.  Most of the time, the risk isn't worth it.

Another common problem I see with beginning writers is the inclination to use adverbs to prop up their speaker attributions.  People never just "say" anything, they say it "sarcastically", or "brightly", or "arrogantly.  Again, this catches you in the act of stuffing character emotion where it doesn't belong, but on a grammatical level, it catches you using two words to do the work of one.  Everybody hates it when we see six construction workers standing around watching one guy pour asphalt into a pothole.  Why should we be any less infuriated when words do the same thing?

The reason is of course that when we write a line of dialogue, we hear it in our head.  We struggle to capture the exact way the character said it, because we want the reader to hear it the way we did.  But I find it seldom matters whether the reader hears a line of dialogue exactly the way I heard it when I wrote it.  Part of the joy of reading is that you get to read a story in your unique way, and if I, the writer, force you to read it exactly my way, I rob you of that joy.  It's a perfect example of a writer standing in the way of his own work--sacrificing transparency.

So I've let go of the idea that readers must read every line a certain way, and focus instead on clarity.  I trust my readers to be smart enough to pick up on subtext, and I try to make it easy to pay attention.  And truthfully, if you have to jump through awkward, wordy hoops to ensure that readers hear a line just so, chances are something is wrong with the line itself, and your efforts would be better spent pumping up the dialogue itself.


If you feel the urge to use something other than "said"--or God forbid, to use "said" along with an adverb--what's really going on is you have a character emotion you're trying to work into dialogue.  A speaker attribution is by far the weakest hook to hang emotions on.  The dialogue itself is by far the strongest.  Which has more emotion:

"I find you very attractive," Bob panted arousedly.
or
"You're so fucking hot."

I have found it is usually possible to reword any line so that it carries the proper emotion.  Occasionally though, you will want the dialogue to be slightly off kilter with the emotion, either for comic effect, or because the character feels some need to restrain themselves.  So how do you work those subtleties into a passage of dialogue?  How do we show sarcasm without clunky attributions like "he said sarcastically?" or "he quipped"?  How can we show that a speaker is saying something they don't really believe?


But in those situations, body language can almost always help you, using what Browne and King refer to as "beats".  And for that, you'll have to take a look at the next article.

Often when I express my opinion on this matter, people say "But I see it all the time in published authors' work!!!"  It's true, some authors get away with verbs like "intoned", or "guffawed".  Some editors don't care.  And many readers won't actually notice, or feel intruded upon.  Sometimes, these verbs aren't that conspicuous, because whatever is going on in the scene is sufficiently engaging that we don't notice.  No matter what principle we're discussing, there will always be some author who "gets away with" doing it the "wrong way".

But you don't want to "get away" with your writing, do you?  You don't want your writing to be some savagery you perpetrate on your readers, do you?  If not, stick to "said".