Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 45

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 45: Avoiding “Said”

What’s this, you say? Avoiding “said” is one of the most common writing mistakes? How can that be? Surely writers overuse this ubiquitous little word more often than not, don’t they? As a matter of fact: nope. Indeed, trying to avoid this hard-working little speaker-attribution tag can, in most instances, lead you into some major prose problems.

If you run a word-frequency search through your manuscript, “said” is probably the verb that shows up the most. For some writers, that sets off alarm bells in their heads. If a word shows up that frequently, then surely you must be overusing it. Readers will notice its repetition and stumble over it as it clutters your prose.

As a result, you might be tempted to start replacing “said” with more colorful alternatives. After all, writers are always being told to look beyond pedestrian verbs like “walked” for more specific and “showing” choices, such as “sauntered,” “limped,” and “marched.” The same must be true of “said,” right?

It’s a legit question–so let us take a look.

How to Create Silly Dialogue by Avoiding “Said”

The problem with replacing our little workaday friend “said” with more flamboyant and specific alternatives is two-fold.

Problem #1: “Said” alternatives are usually counter-productive in that they end up drawing way more attention to themselves than plain-Jane “said” ever would.

Problem #2: Unlike most colorful verbs, which work to “show” readers the action, flashy dialogue tags actually have exactly the opposite effect. Dialogue is arguably the only true form of “showing” in written fiction, since the words should ideally be able to stand on their own without the author interjecting his own guidance or interpretation. But that’s exactly what non-“said” speaker tags do. They tell readers how to read the dialogue. In most (although definitely not all) instances, that’s going to drain a little of the vibrancy and immediacy right out of even the best dialogue.

Check it out:

Sinead’s kids were screaming in the backseat as she drove home from the grocery store.

“I want ice cream!” Michael shrieked.

“Me too!” whined Cassandra.

“No,” Sinead gritted out. “We’re going home.”

“But why?” Michael wailed.

“Why?” Cassandra echoed.

Sinead’s cell phone rang.

“Hello,” she answered.

“You’re late!” her boss roared.

“But,” she gasped, “I wasn’t even supposed to come into work today!”

As you can see, even a variety of speaker tags can get repetitious (and very silly) fast.

Can You Overuse “Said” in Your Dialogue?

Okay, so we don’t want to overuse non-“said” tags. Got it. But that brings us right back to our original conundrum: Can you overuse “said” itself in your dialogue?

Short answer: definitely.

If we replace all of those creative tags from the first example with “saids,” we’ve still got problems coming out of our ears:

Sinead’s kids were screaming in the backseat as she drove home from the grocery store.

“I want ice cream!” Michael said.

“Me too!” said Cassandra.

“No,” Sinead said. “We’re going home.”

“But why?” Michael said.

“Why?” Cassandra said.

Sinead’s cell phone rang.

“Hello,” she said.

“You’re late!” her boss said.

“But,” she said, “I wasn’t even supposed to come into work today!”

In all honesty, this is still probably better choice than the previous example, despite the more obvious repetition. At least it’s not hitting readers over the head with the author’s thesaurus. But it’s also the perfect example of why authors get twitchy with “said.” Slather this many “saids” into your dialogue, and you’re totally right to fear that readers will get annoyed.

So what’s the answer?

How to Streamline Your Dialogue by Taking Advantage of “Said”

As always, what we’re looking for here is a happy medium. There are two things you need to understand about the use of “said.”

Thing to Understand Numero Uno: When used with wise restraint, “said” is virtually invisible. So long as the rhythm of your prose cooperates, you can include “said” in practically every other line of dialogue–and readers won’t notice. “Said” is a background word–not unlike “the,” “he,” “she” or your character’s name. Use “prestidigitation” even as many as four times in a book, and readers may well take notice. But you can use “said” over and over again without it ever registering.

Thing to Understand Numero Dos: Just because you can use “said” with comparative abandon doesn’t mean you should. I ran a search in my 143,000-word work-in-progress; “said” shows up 311 times–which, honestly, kind of shocked me. That’s not very often, really. And the reason it doesn’t show up more than that is because there are a host of other options at the author’s fingertips.

The first option is simply going with the minimalist approach and avoiding any kind of speaker tag. Remember: you want your awesome dialogue to stand on its own whenever possible. There are only three times you ever need to use a speaker tag:

1. When the speaker needs to be clarified. (Who is speaking?)

2. When the tone needs to be clarified. (How is he speaking?)

3. When the rhythm of the prose demands it.

Even then, you’re always going to want to consider whether or not an action beat might not be the better choice. An action beat indicates an action performed by the speaker, in association with his dialogue. Because it references the speaker, it eliminates the need for an identifying speaker tag. And because it often provides context for the dialogue, it can often pull double duty by helping readers understand the tone in which the speaker is talking.

Optimally, you’re going to want to incorporate a conscious mix of action beats and “saids,” along with the very occasional alternative speaker tag.

Something like this:

Sinead’s kids were screaming in the backseat as she drove home from the grocery store.

Michael kicked the back of her seat. “I want ice cream!”

“Me too!” Cassandra said from her car seat.

“No.” Sinead clenched the steering wheel. “We’re going home.”

“But why?” Michael said.

“Why?” Cassandra echoed.

Sinead’s cell phone rang.

Her heart sank. That was going to be bad news. She just knew it. “Hello.”

“You’re late!” Her boss sounded about as happy as a giraffe with a sore throat

On top of everything else, the accusation felt like a blow to her stomach. “But–I wasn’t even supposed to come into work today!”

Like any tool in your writing bag, “said” must be used with care. But don’t feel you have to avoid it. Common though it may be, “said” is one of the writer’s hardest workers. Indeed, its very commonness is what makes it so useful!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Run a search through your WIP. How many times have you used “said”? Too many or not enough? Tell me in the comments!

 

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 45

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Preach it! This is so… Yes! As a freelance editor, I spend so so so much time telling this to my clients. Ahhhh! And when I see those pinterest posts with “100 different ways to say ‘said'” I want to scream!

    Ok. I’m overusing exclamation points now. But it’s only because I’m so overwrought with emotion at the truth of this post. Thank you. I’ll point people here when they want a second opinion.

  2. Matthew David Lennartz says:

    Hello and greetings to the writing community!

    This is a great post. I am writing my first book and am empowered by your thoughts. As you have indicated, balance is the key. In addition, if applied correctly, use of the word “said” is transparent. Thank you so much for your assistance!

  3. John Finn says:

    Very good post. Of course, you could have avoided “said” altogether in the example:

    Sinead’s kids were screaming in the backseat as she drove home from the grocery store:

    “I want ice cream!”

    “Me too!”

    “No.” Sinead clenched the steering wheel. “We’re going home.”

    “But why?”

    “Yeah, why?”

    Sinead’s cell phone rang.

    Her heart sank. That was going to be bad news. She just knew it. “Hello.”

    “You’re late!” Her boss sounded about as happy as a giraffe with a sore throat.

    On top of everything else, the accusation felt like a blow to her stomach. “But–I wasn’t even supposed to come into work today!”

  4. Autumn Rose says:

    This topic is a hard one for me–not because I use too many saids, but because I avoid using them. Honestly, it’s just plain boring to me. I like to know how the character is feeling and how he or she is speaking (I love italics too for the same reason, though I use them sparingly).

    Here is a part of a dialogue I wrote for a novel I’m working on (between a teenager and his drunk uncle whom he’s just met):

    “Grendon was my father…” Zaiden began.
    “You bet he was,” Johan interrupted. “There’s no doubt about that. You look just like him, boy.”
    “Well…”
    “Man, oh man,” Johan murmured, shaking his head again. “I never in my life thought I’d ever see one of you again. Imagine – a wizard in Rada Loka! And in my living room no less!” He laughed again, loud and hearty like the first time.
    “Wizard? What are you talking about? I’m not a wizard, I’m your nephew,” Zaiden said loudly, trying to get his uncle to come to his senses. He could smell the liquor on Johan’s breath and wondered how much the man had consumed this night.
    Johan stopped mumbling and looked at him, shocked. “What? Of course you’re a wizard!” he bellowed incredulously, sitting up straighter in his chair. With a gesture of his hand toward Zaiden, he announced, “You’re a Truthbearer. All Truthbearers are wizards.”
    It was Zaiden’s turn to sit up a little straighter. “You know I’m a Truthbearer?” he said cautiously.
    “Of course I do,” Johan replied, as if the fact was obvious.

    Okay, now if I take out all the explanations (he mumbled, he bellowed, he interrupted, etc.), the scene seems to lose something:

    “Grendon was my father…” Zaiden said.
    “You bet he was,” Johan said. “There’s no doubt about that. You look just like him, boy.”
    “Well…”
    “Man, oh man,” Johan said, shaking his head again. “I never in my life thought I’d ever see one of you again. Imagine – a wizard in Rada Loka! And in my living room no less!” He laughed again, loud and hearty like the first time.
    “Wizard? What are you talking about? I’m not a wizard, I’m your nephew,” Zaiden said. He could smell the liquor on Johan’s breath and wondered how much the man had consumed this night.
    Johan stopped mumbling and looked at him. “What? Of course you’re a wizard!” he said, sitting up straighter in his chair. With a gesture of his hand toward Zaiden, he said, “You’re a Truthbearer. All Truthbearers are wizards.”
    It was Zaiden’s turn to sit up a little straighter. “You know I’m a Truthbearer?” he said.
    “Of course I do,” Johan said.

    In the second version, I feel like something is missing because how a person says something is important to understanding how they think and how they perceive things. A drunk character could just as easily say something quiet as he could bellow out his words. Unless I explain how he’s speaking, how will my reader know? Everyone is an individual and would have a different idea on how something would be said, so why is it insulting to my readers if I explain how my characters would say something? (I’ve read in many articles that the way I write is insulting to readers, but honestly, I like to know what the author intended the characters to sound like and I find it irritating to simply read he said she said all the time. I’ve never been insulted by reading something that precisely explained how the characters spoke or acted).

    Sorry, this is a long post, but it’s a topic that keeps coming up as I try to write my first fiction novel (and make it a really good one!) and it’s a frustrating topic for me. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Three things…

      1. If people are saying your word choices are “insulting,” that’s a bit strong. :p The bottom line, however, of what they’re trying to convey is that showing is almost always more powerful than telling–and telling is often insidious until you know how to spot it.

      For example, I’ve bolded the telling words in your excerpt:

      “Grendon was my father…” Zaiden began.
      “You bet he was,” Johan interrupted. “There’s no doubt about that. You look just like him, boy.”
      “Well…”
      “Man, oh man,” Johan murmured, shaking his head again. “I never in my life thought I’d ever see one of you again. Imagine – a wizard in Rada Loka! And in my living room no less!” He laughed again, loud and hearty like the first time.
      “Wizard? What are you talking about? I’m not a wizard, I’m your nephew,” Zaiden said loudly, trying to get his uncle to come to his senses. He could smell the liquor on Johan’s breath and wondered how much the man had consumed this night.
      Johan stopped mumbling and looked at him, shocked. “What? Of course you’re a wizard!” he bellowed incredulously, sitting up straighter in his chair. With a gesture of his hand toward Zaiden, he announced, “You’re a Truthbearer. All Truthbearers are wizards.”
      It was Zaiden’s turn to sit up a little straighter. “You know I’m a Truthbearer?” he said cautiously.
      “Of course I do,” Johan replied, as if the fact was obvious.

      More on telling verbs here: Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are Your Verbs Showing or Telling?

      2. Another reason speaker tags and particularly adverbs are cautioned against is because they’re simply not necessary. The point they’re trying to make is already obvious from the context. For example, when you say “Johan stopped mumbling and looked at him, shocked,” you’ve already conveyed his shock and incredulity, which means you can safely delete the following “incredulously.”

      3. You’re right about your second example being dry, but this is because in correcting telling, it’s not enough to simply delete it. The conversation still requires context, which means you have to tweak it to allow for showing. You also definitely don’t want to leave naked “saids” in every line. It’s both unnecessary and will quickly feel repetitious.

      • Autumn Rose says:

        Thanks for helping to clarify. Those who say it is insulting to the readers (implying that I am telling them things they could think for themselves) are the “professionals” who write articles and books about how to write well. Those who read my writing usually find it very engaging and enjoy it, encouraging me to write more. Still, I am far from where I want to be (which is why it is nice to be able to read your articles and get answers from someone who’s already been where I’m at and has succeeded beyond it!) Thank you.

  5. Selrisitai says:

    I doubt that I can make any of the impending statements without sounding rude, and I fear that any attempt at amelioration will result in, rather than a gentle tone, an impression of condescension or sarcasm; so, I’m just going to say it and hope that no one misconstrues my sentiment.

    I think all of the examples are bad, from the first to the last. I disagree that the second example is any better than the first; it just depends upon what you prefer: Having someone shout in your ear with zealous usage of varying dialogue tags, or having someone mumble nearly imperceptibly with the monotonous use of “said.”

    Finally, the last example was not better, it was just bad in a different way.

    I think that this article would be more verisimilar, and candid, if you just said, “Try to mix up action tags, ‘said’ and ‘asked,’ and direct exposition to prevent your prose from becoming monotonous or ostentatious.”

    Everything in moderation, in other words.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Dialogue is key to a gripping story, but sometimes the tags that trip us up. Jen Matera revisits a dialogue tag primer, and K.M. Weiland explains why avoid “said” can be a big mistake.  […]

  2. […] Common writing mistakes, pt. 45: Avoiding ‘said.’ K.M. Weiland. […]

  3. […] On Avoiding “Said” as a tag – I love this post, I often struggle with feeling like I’m using “said” or “says” too much in my writing. KM lets you know that it’s alright to use ‘said’ and even offers some points about when to use it and when to omit it. It’ll be a help when editing dialogue. […]

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