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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Invisible Said

To paraphrase Mark Twain, The reports of Said's death have been greatly exaggerated.

There are writers--newer writers--going through contortions to not use the word said in their stories. "Said is Dead" proclaims the graphic I see pinned on Pinterest over and over and over again. It also includes a list of words to use instead. But said is not dead, said isn't even ill.

The beauty of said is that it's an invisible word. Readers register it, of course, but they don't stop reading because of it. I humbly suggest that this is not the case with many of the contortion words.

"I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too," the witch cackled.

Writers aren't normal, I know that, but the word cackle stops me. Cackled? I try to picture someone cackling while talking. It's like reading a sentence that says, "That's funny," he laughed. I mean, I guess you could laugh and talk at the same time, but this isn't a smooth dialogue tag. This is a conspicuous flashing red tag.

His laugh started low and rumbled up his chest before escaping. "That's funny," Jack said.

See how said kind of disappears? See how the focus is on the character and his words, not on the writer's choice of dialogue tag?

The job of a writer is to get out of the way. The reader shouldn't be thinking about you, about your choice of words, about how you put a sentence together. If you're so hugely worried about using said too many times, write your story so that you don't need a dialogue tag every time someone talks.

Jack's laugh started low and rumbled up his chest before escaping. He gave his kid brother a light punch on the biceps before his expression sobered. "That's funny, but Mom and Dad won't feel that way. If I were you, I'd keep that information quiet."

We know it's Jack speaking because of the action in front of the dialogue. No tag necessary.

The next time you read a book, try to remain semi-aware of the dialogue tags. Did any of them make you hesitate even for a split second as you read? Were any of those the word said? I'm willing to bet it wasn't. I'm willing to bet that the reading stumble happened on she cackled, he laughed, she hissed, he shouted rather than on he said.

Plus, seriously, some of the dialogue tag substitutes for said are lazy writing. He shouted. Okay, so instead of showing me he was mad, you're telling me he's mad with that tag.

That's not to say that said is the only choice. It's not, of course. There are times you'll want to use something different and that's fine. There's nothing wrong with choosing to use he shouted if that's the best way to tell the story. It's not fine if you're thinking, well, I used said ten pages ago, I better not use it again, so let's see, what can I use instead?

There's a lot of pluses to the invisible said. Don't go through contortions to avoid using it.