To Say or Not to Say

So you’re a writer. Welcome to the club, please pick your t-shirt from the pile and have a seat. You’ve probably been around the interwebs and have no doubt found an article or two on the topic of said. You know, dialogue tags.

There are two firm groups of thought here. Okay, okay – two groups of fanatics.

One will tell you Said Is Dead. This group probably started to screw with your mind in high school – I know I was taught that it’s much more descriptive and interesting to use different words than boring, overused said. I remember exercises where we had to complete dialogues by using any words other than said, or we’d be penalised.

The second group will implore you to please, please, please JUST use said. Asked if you’re feeling wild. If you’re a complete rebel, you can have a single whispered, shouted or grunted in the manuscript. I know what you’re thinking, I think it too sometimes. What about those moments when said isn’t enough? Well, then this group will tell you to go with an action tag, but for heaven’s sake, don’t tack on an -ly adjective behind the said (quietly, fervently, unhappily, etc.).

There’s a smaller group that will tell you to cut out dialogue tags altogether and just go with action tags, but this is the minority. I’ve come to learn that dialogue tags go a long way and I totally prefer them over dialogue tags. When you show your character doing something, you give them dimension, make them seem real. Having said that, cutting all action tags might make the conversations between characters seem forced, like they’re wooden puppets constantly being moved by vicious puppeteers. Real people do sit still and just talk now and then.

But what’s the deal with said anyway?

One of the first things we’re taught as writers is to avoid repetitions. We shouldn’t be using the same words too often, because repeated words draw attention. They cause a pause in the reading or go on to become as soothing as the familiar notes of a lullaby (I wrote a thing that covers that here).

And, if we’re going to be honest, said will probably be one of the most used words in your manuscript. It should be right up there with the usuals: the, is, was, he, she, it, they and all the others.

The people of the ‘kill it with fire’ group consider said a weak word, so often repeated that it becomes lazy writing.

The others consider said an invisible word, no more than punctuation.

And that, folks, is what makes said a fabulous word. I’m sad to admit it took me a while to reach this conclusion, but I’m lucky enough to have an editor that also has the patience to explain the basics to noob writers.

You want to use invisible words in your manuscript. Words that people kind of skim over, words that become like punctuation.

An author should strive to become the same way, IMO. Punctuation. Barely there. We want our readers to lose themselves in the story, to forget that it’s just a fragment of our imaginations painted by letters on a white background. We want them to experience the story as if they’re living it, right?

So, each time we do something overly fancy, like throwing around flashy words, it’s almost like the writer steps into the story, just there in the reader’s peripheral vision, shaking around a fluorescent, sparkling sign with bright letters saying, ‘Me! I made this! Ain’t it purdy?’. Think about Watson ejaculating way too often when one of Sherlock’s discoveries excites him. Kind of makes you stop and giggle, doesn’t it?

For the most part, repetitions become jarring. Even said will become obvious if overused (which is why action tags are so useful). I wrote an example of that here, and I’m sticking to it. But – if used correctly – invisible words won’t draw the reader’s attention. I’ve come to view these little pretties as the heartbeat of the story. Kind of like a rhythm-keeping drum in the subconscious, the working song to increase productivity. No, I haven’t lost my mind.

We instinctively know to stop after a full stop. We know that a comma is a pause, that the question mark causes a rise in the speaker’s pitch, right? We don’t need to specifically look at any punctuation mark to register that it’s there, just like we instinctively read over said. We know what it means, so we don’t have to focus on it to gather what its purpose is.

When our characters start arguing, booming, challenging, musing, whining, gloating and so on, the reader still knows what the word means, but they have to actually read those words. Not like said, a fleeting little ghost at the end of the sentence.

Invisible words maintain a steady tempo in your story. Fancy words create pauses and slow down the reader’s pace. In some cases, they are the emergency breaks that not only stops the reader’s reading, but also hurls them out of the wagon completely. Not the ideal if you want them to love your story.

In the end, most of these writing rules have exceptions. In those moments where you want to draw attention to the shouted sentence, go with it. I don’t believe we should be tied down by any writing rule. The fact is, people use the word very, or cliches when they talk, so the writing advice that tells you to completely cut those from your writing might take away from your story. But for the most part, it’s a good idea not to have very or a cliche on every page of your manuscript.

The same with this said thing. Use it like seasoning to enrich the aromas of your story. Dude, I’m a writer. I can’t stop this purple prose from leaking out of my fingertips. 😛

Please just remember that using only said, with no dialogue tags or anything to break the monotony will also have a negative impact on your story. Hey, nobody said this writing thing would be easy! Finding a balance is key. Good luck with that and please let me know if you crack the code that unlocks perfection.

Have a good weekend!

Yolandie