Friday, 24 November 2017

When to Use “Said”

There’s a myth that you should never use the verb say in your dialogue. Certainly there are more exciting, muscular verbs out there, but too often writers resort to a thesaurus when a simple said would be more effective.

Medieval
Cefusa, a legendary beast which leaves human footprints. France c.1290

Compare the following:

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” wondered Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me,” replied Mae.
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now,” complained Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” observed Mae.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” said Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me,” said Mae.
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now,” said Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” said Mae.

While neither example is ideal, the speech tags in the second example are less distracting than those in the first. Said has a way of fading into the background, while verbs like replied and observed can sound odd or stilted. You want your reader’s attention to move smoothly through the scene, not get snagged on awkward or unnecessary word choices.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should always and only use said. Other verbs can be more effective when they tell us something important about the dialogue.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” whispered Shazad.
  “Wait! I hear something!” hissed Mae.

Here both speech tags expand on the dialogue by telling us how it was spoken. And both are in keeping with the scene, not shoehorned in just to provide word variety.

Medieval illumination of many-headed lion-type thing
Apocalypse beast. France 1220–1270

Of course, you could always dispense with speech tags altogether.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?”
  “Yes, I told you. It’ll pass by any minute, trust me.”
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now.”
  “Wait! I hear something!”

This can work well where you want a quick pace. But unless you’ve already introduced the characters, the reader won’t be able to picture them. And if you add a third speaker, things get really confusing.

  “Is that it?”
  “Shh!”
  “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  “Excuse me. Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  “Oh, uh, sorry.”
  “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

You can still let your readers know who’s speaking without using speech tags. The characters’ actions, appearing on the same lines as their dialogue, cue readers as to who’s saying what. (For more on this, see Dialogue and Paragraph Breaks.)

  Shazad leaned forward. “Is that it?”
  “Shh!” Mae poked his shoulder warningly.
  His jaw dropped. “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  The sasquatch glared at them through the tree branches. “Excuse me. Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  Shazad cleared his throat. “Oh, uh, sorry.”
  Mae winced. “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

This method keeps some of the punchiness of the dialogue-only approach while giving the reader more information. The scene is a lot more vivid when we know how the characters are moving and reacting in between speaking.

Cute illustration of two sasquatches
Sasquatch and her son by Sarah Goodreau

But any sentence structure repeated too often will bore your reader, so you want to use some or all of these methods in combination. Remember, too, that you can put speech tags or actions in the middle of dialogue to switch things up.

  “Are you sure this is where you saw it?” whispered Shazad.
  “Yes, I told you,” said Mae. “It’ll pass by any minute, trust me.”
  “It’s not that I don’t believe you.” He shifted awkwardly. “It’s just that this branch has been poking me in the butt for like twenty minutes now.”
  Mae froze. “Wait! I hear something!”
  “Is that it?”
  “Shh!” she hissed.
  His jaw dropped. “Oh my God, you were right! It’s really real!”
  The sasquatch glared at them through the tree branches. “Excuse me,” she rumbled. “Do you mind giving me a little privacy?”
  “Oh, uh, sorry,” said Shazad.
  Mae winced. “Yeah, sorry, dude.”

What we can learn from the “never use said” myth is that no writing rule should be applied universally. A screwdriver may be an invaluable tool, but you wouldn’t use it to hang a picture. Writing tips are tools, and choosing the right one for each job is what the craft of writing is all about. Next time you’re enjoying a good book, notice how the author has put together their dialogue. I’m guessing somewhere in there they probably used said.



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