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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Wow, this is definitely food for thought. I gave myself pats on the back for all of the alternatives I used for said in my writings. I still used it when I thought necessary but sometimes still felt guilty about it afterwards.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, definitely don’t feel guilty for using “said.” It’s one of our hardest-working dialogue tools.

  2. Very good post! I often notice “said” when it comes up in every line of dialogue in your second example. This happened in the Harry Potter books a lot, and I’d almost always notice it (I still loved the books anyway). But in the Redwall series, I realized that Jacques rarely ever used speaker tags. He’d use an action beat before the dialogue, so we’d realize who was speaking without needing a speaker tag.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think we tend to see a more repetitious use of “said” in children’s books than we do in other types.

  3. Janey Egerton says

    “[…] beyond pedestrian verbs like ‘walked’ […]” I’m not quite a pun fan, but this one made my day 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah! I totally missed it. #punnotintended

    • I loved that pun too! I really love puns.
      Hadn’t really given any thought to avoiding ‘said’, but was shocked to check one of my WiPs and find that in 43721 words, said only showed up 33 times. I’ll definitely pay more attention in future. I agree that the key is moderation, unless of course you are writing a children’s picture book story where repetition is part of the intent to help them remember it.

  4. I prefer action beats to go with the dialogue, like your third example. That said (sorry), if for some reason I didn’t use an action beat, I could never bear to pair “said” with a line of dialogue that ends with an exclamation point. A character speaking in exclamation points had better be shouting/screaming/screeching/bellowing.

    Using “Dialogue!” followed by *said* is too jarring for me, as I’m hearing the dialogue one way in my head and the “said” is telling me to hear it a different way. I feel the same way about question marks, except I’m expecting to see “asked” instead of “said.”

    In fact, I think “asked” gets the same pitfall as “said,” especially in interrogation scenes: “She queried, he inquired, they wondered, she probed, he grilled, they pursued.” Action beats are a definite must in those scenes 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The trouble with “asked” and “shouted” is that we tend to see their inclusion as more repetitious, or a statement of the obvious, than we do with “said.” If the dialogue ends with a question mark, of course the speaker is asking. If it ends with an exclamation point, of course the speaker is shouting.

      That said (!), I do get what you’re saying, and I do agree that a plain “said” after a question mark or an exclamation point can look weird.

  5. Thank you!!

    This is a favorite topic of some bloggers, and most get pretty close to Elmore Leonard’s blanket “never use a non-Said.” It’s a pleasure to see someone cover it properly, saying that both extremes go bad and the real answer is to know your options.

    Have you heard of “burly detective syndrome,” where an author leans too hard on bits of description for fear of using the character’s name or pronoun? “Fear of said” is definitely a close relative.

    I think one of the reasons tags can go so wrong is that they’re conspicuous. Dialog gets its own paragraph, and usually the tag is the only thing in it that’s not in quotes, so the tag stands out as its own little handle on that chunk of text. No wonder too many “saids” get noticed (at least, if there really are too many; they *are* nicely invisible up to a certain density) and “supersaids” like “yelled” REALLY get noticed.

    It’s all about the options: tagless, said, the occasional supersaid, and beats. Writers who use too many or too few saids just aren’t keeping their choices in mind.

  6. Kinza Sheikh says

    So, with the approach I am writing with these days. Writing all the essence of the scene in the first draft, every little detail. And then cut out the less useful ones later.
    If I follow these examples, I think I will use a little bit of first and third examples along with every dialogue. And figure out what to keep in second draft. *head nodding*
    (Keeps word count soaring and make you feel good, while leaving a lot to edit later though)

  7. This has been a huge part of our MS development. Simple said or asked dialog tags but only when needed for clarity purposes for the reader. When used right, said or asked are like almost invisible markers to guide the path without distracting the reader from the exchange between the characters. Thanks…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Invisible markers to guide the path without distracting the reader from the exchange between the characters.” Exactly!

  8. I understand said is invisible, and that overusing alternatives can be distracting, but I’ve heard certain people say to NEVER replace said. I don’t know irbid go to that extreme. Said has its uses. As do asked, whispered, murmured, mumbled., etc.

    But, like you, I prefer to use action beats in place. That being “said” in my current manuscript of 23,000+ words, I’ve only used “said” 82 times. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, extremes of all kinds are usually the wrong idea. Non-said tags absolutely have their place (as, of course, do modifiers–which some people also want to get rid of entirely). It’s just that non-said tags are an “err on the side of fewer” kind of thing.

  9. I am definitely guilty of overusing the word “said”. The few times I’ve gotten a beta reader to read one of my stories, that was always a comment, and it’s something I’m definitely having trouble improving. I find it especially difficult in more casual conversations, where less is going on, and there isn’t as much I can use for an action beat. I’ve also found myself falling back to using adverbs here to try and reduce the repetition, and I don’t really think that’s a good idea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The challenge is to *create* interesting dialogue beats that serve double duty as speaker tags *and* as meaningful subtext for the conversation. What can you characters do that will coincide with or contrast what they’re talking about?

    • I know what you mean. Sometimes the characters don’t seem to be doing anything.

      Try overwriting, just say everything that you can imagine the characters might be doing. Biting lip, scratching head, blinking, doodling, adjusting their belt. Throw everything you’ve got in there, and just keep the one or two you need, ones that seem to fit the rhythm of the sentence. Also, if there’re only two people, you can cut it up and use only a few of the tags.

      It’s like scene description. It’s hard to know where to throw it in without becoming a dump. I hate putting it in. Maybe you should find somebody who leans hard on action tags and read a few so that you get the feel for them? That might make it easier, seeing it done.

  10. I remember in my early days of writing I was taught to use “colorful” words more, but now I know so much better. When a writer never uses “said” but other words it makes the dialogue seem over-dramatic and unrealistic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Melodramatic is exactly right. And that’s something we only want in a story if we’re writing humor or satire or the like.

  11. Marissa John says

    Thanks for the post.

    I had a discussion with my writing critique group recently that sometimes you just need “said” in the rhythm of the dialogue. I use it almost where a character would take a breath. Sometimes you need that “beat” and said is just right.

  12. 276 times out of 112k in the novel I’m about to begin editing.
    659 times out of 168k in the novel I just finished drafting. Eep!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unedited drafts get more wiggle room. 😉

      • The top one was on a 3rd draft, and the bottom one was *technically* a second draft, but it was a full-out overhaul, so while there were some things I pulled for the overall book structure, it ended up being closer to a 1st draft than a 2nd…especially at 168k total!

  13. I’m not really sure I completely agree with this post. I agree on the parts regarding the use of ‘said,’ but as far as using alternative dialogue tags, I think it’s a little unfair to mark them as ‘writing mistakes.’ I see it more as a stylistic choice. Hundreds of well-known authors get away with using dialogue tags besides ‘said,’ and in fact, some of them rarely use ‘said’ at all. I’m pretty hard-set against using ‘said’ because it lacks clarity, and requires further explanation of *how* something was said–which only adds to word counts. It’s easier to write ‘”I want ice cream,” he whined.” than to write ‘”I want ice cream,” he said in a whining tone.’ I think dialogue is one of those things that, in order to be most effective, needs to be clearly expressed in terms of what’s being said, and *how* it’s being said. I feel like dialogue tags besides ‘said’ are clearer and more concise. I know that my personal preference is seeing alternative dialogue tags, as ‘said’ always lacks some life and can often turn a prose stiff.

    All that said, I think this is just a matter of writing preference, not a matter of ‘this is a mistake and that is not.’ Something I’ve come to realize is that, outside of breaking the rules of basic spelling and grammar, there’s really no ‘wrong’ way to write, nor is there any ‘right’ way to write. Everyone writes differently, and has their own distinctive style.

    • I hear what you’re saying, but to me as a reader, it is too much “telling” to have the speaker’s tone explained for every single quote. I like it when it’s easy to infer the tone from context and what is said (as in K.M.’s example, “Michael kicked the back of her seat. ‘I want ice cream!'”).

      • Yeah I guess it can be seen as telling, but when you think about it, dialogue isn’t something you can really show because you can’t see it. Granted, you can set up context, as in kicking the back of the seat, but again, that adds to word count. And there is the fact that, as a writer, you are, in essence, telling the reader what is happening, whether that be directly, as in actual ‘telling,’ or indirectly, through ‘showing.’ Not that I’m against ‘show, don’t tell,’ I just think that it applies more to things happening than things being said. I guess my beef is that there are merits to both approaches, ‘said’ and ‘non-said’ tags, but to call one or the other ‘the wrong way to write it’ is unfair, and can bash a young writer’s confidence, or even a more experienced writer who’s been doing things this way or that way for a while. In the end, it is just a matter of stylistic choice. Word count isn’t everything, so adding ‘Michael kicked the back of her seat’ is up to the individual writer’s preference. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          First off, you’re totally right that calling non-said tags “mistakes” is a bit hyperbolic. As with many writing no-nos, the mistake is in the abuse of a technique, not the technique itself.

          Second, you’re also totally right that “whined” is a gazillion times better than “he said in a whining tone.”

          Ultimately, the point here is that the best dialogue can and should be able to stand on its own without the guidance of explicit tags.

          I have to disagree that dialogue *isn’t* showing. As I mention in the post, I feel dialogue is arguably the *only* true form of showing in written fiction, since good dialogue can stand on its own without any explanation.

          Subtext is also key: we want to allow readers, whenever possible, to interpret the dialogue from the subtext rather than telling them explicitly how to read things. So even though action tags, such as “Michael kicked the seat,” do add to the word count, it’s usually going to be a worthy exchange.

          Showing of any kind almost inevitably requires twice as many words as telling.

  14. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks for reading!

  15. Well said (sorry, couldn’t resist). Covering this attribution foible from multiple directions.

  16. Curtis Manges says

    Compare some really simple examples.

    “This has to be stopped,” said John.

    This one neither shows nor tells anything. Now,

    “This has to be stopped,” John said angrily.

    This time, we’re told that John is angry, not shown. Now,

    John’s chair hit the wall behind him as he stood up, crushing the document in his fist. “This has to be stopped.”

    No -ly words needed, and we see John’s anger; we don’t have to be told. Notice that in this example, the action beat describes John’s emotional state before he says anything, so that when we read his words, we know already what kind of tone they’ll be delivered in. No need for exclamation points.

    Now, consider that an action beat is just a bit of narrative with a quote attached to it. If we take away the dialog, we get:

    John’s chair hit the wall behind him as he stood up, crushing the document in his fist.

    He almost doesn’t need to say anything at all.

    Action beat = narrative + dialog.

  17. Yeah, it’s a constant balancing act.

    I want to stay away from ridiculous alternatives (he ejaculated) as in your first example, they themselves are distracting.

    I also am aware (just through re-reading, rather than word-checking) of when said feels like it’s beginning to dominate the page.

    I do try to go with the action beat when possible (without playcalling a Bold And The Beautiful scene… Ridge crossed to the chair and looked back over his shoulder… Courtney tilted her shoulders and fixed him with a killer glare…etc), but I also try to leave it in those instances when the reader should be able to infer who’s speaking in a conversation.

    Sometimes this will be the content of the words, sometimes it will be the speech patterns. If you take a look at some of the Dumbledore/Harry conversations, you probably wouldn’t need tags for half of the dialogue.

    But, like everything, it’s more an art than a science, and ultimately a judgement call

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This brings to mind something else that’s worth saying: action beats just for the sake of action beats are rarely a good choice. At the least, they’re a wasted opportunity. We want those action beats to always pull double duty by advancing the plot in their own right.

  18. Jim Tucker says

    Well “said”. Very useful post. Liked the effort put into the scenarios/examples. Thanks, Katie.
    Jim

  19. Jim Arnold says

    This was a problem that plagued me from the start. I’ve always disliked it when writers would over use the “said” in their stories. I talked it over with a woman who teaches writing in Indiana. She said … I mean told me that putting a tag at the end of every sentence wasn’t necessary. The readers can follow who’s saying what, but you will need to put in a tag every once in a while.

    However, I love how Katie wrote the last paragraph and I will integrate that style into my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      At the end of the day, this is what it all comes down to. Nothing whatsoever wrong with “said”–only the mindless overuse of it or any other tag.

  20. As someone else pointed out about the “said” at the end of every sentence, I get turned off by a repetitious pattern. I try not to do it the same way more than twice consecutively. While I see that you most often used “said” and it’s replacements after the quoted text, I find myself writing it almost always before, to the point where I struggle trying to diversify it – it bothers me that I write it so consistently before the quote. In general, I dislike repeating words, and even in writing this comment I find myself editing out multiple instances.

    Frequently I go with the repeated action/reaction of a conversation, needing to transcribe as the voices inside my head go off on their own path. Afterwards I’ll visualize the scene a few times, then start writing in the action beats to break up all of the quotations, describing the moods, movements, facial expressions, etc that I want the reader to ‘see’ as well.

    Reading your finished example, my style would have been slightly different, as this feels best to me.

    “No!” Sinead snapped as she clenched the steering wheel. “We’re going home.”

    “But why?” Michael whined.

    “Yeah, why?” Cassandra echoed.

    Sinead drove on, trying to ignore her children’s pleas – when her cell phone rang.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although certainly not technically “wrong,” I would caution against the usage of both a speaker tag (“snapped”) and an action beat (“clenched the steering wheel”), modifying the same bit of dialogue. Almost always, one or the other will be able to stand on its own. In this instance, Sinead “clenching the steering wheel” indicates her verbal tone without its needing to be spelled out.

  21. Oh beautiful post! Before, I thought I should learn all the other alternatives to said, walked, yelled. Until I realized what I needed to learn wasn’t more synonyms, but how to write a good dialogue, incorporating the setting, the character’s personality, etc.

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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!”

    • Selrisitai says

      How, then, do we know who is saying what?

      • James Butler says

        Do we care? Does it matter which kid is saying what? The main character is Sinead, and her frustration, is all that matters, not her kids names or what complaint they are making.

        Personally, I like to put things in the dialog that makes the speaker obvious:
        “But mom.” (obviously one of the kids)
        “I said no.” (obviously the mom)
        This approach works best with only two speakers, however.

        I do have one complaint about this article, In the original example, Sinead “answered” her phone. I would not have removed this.
        “Hello,” she answered.
        is a fine line, answering IS what you do to when you pick up a phone.
        It does not ‘tell readers how to read the dialogue’ like mumbled would.

        I feel ‘answered’ or ‘responded’ don’t denote tone at all. They simply state that something came first.

  25. 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.

  26. 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. […] The problem with replacing our little workaday friend “said” with more flamboyant and specific alternatives is …read more […]

  2. […] Source: Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 45: Avoiding “Said” […]

  3. […] Avoiding “Said”, from Helping Writers Become Authors: A lot of writers want to avoid using the word […]

  4. […] 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.  […]

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

  6. […] 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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