Said has been buried six feet under since I was nine years old. I remember the first time I heard the phrase. It was Halloween in my fourth grade class, and we had different stations with educational, Halloween themed activities. The pink sock-hop dress I was wearing swished as I skipped to the next station, and I hesitated when I saw a gravestone sitting on the table. Engraved across the top in big letters, was the phrase, ‘Said is Dead.’ A bit morbid, don’t you think? Nine years old, and Said was already dead with nothing but a flimsy, paper gravestone to mark it. The paper had listed alternatives to using the word ‘said,’ and I understood. I understood that ‘said’ marked you as amateur, and that you couldn’t use it that often. Since that day, I made sure I never used ‘said,’ if I could help it. I replaced it with fancy, long words instead; thinking it showed I was a professional, or knowledgeable. Today, I’m going to be raising Said from the dead. Said had a premature funeral, and I think that it deserves a second chance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the purpose of the activity now, all these years later. The purpose wasn’t so we would never use the word, ‘said,’ but to show us that there are alternatives available to us. As a fourth grader, personally, even before that activity, I was disdainful of using ‘said.’ I read quite a lot, and I knew that my favorite authors didn’t use ‘said’ terribly often. They used other words, and they added to the story. And so, as a nine year old, I tried to emulate that in my essays and stories. I would use, ‘questioned,’ or ‘laughed,’ or ‘replied.’ At the time, I thought that made me so smart. Ostracizing ‘said’ in favor of cooler words. I’d like to formally apologize, Said, for taking you for granted. My peers, however, were best friends with Said. Whereas I abandoned the word, my classmates embraced Said wholeheartedly. They never used any of the different words I used, everything was said, said, said. ‘She said she was sad.’ ‘He said he was mad.’ ‘They said they were annoyed.’ So, naturally, my teacher would pretend said was dead, holding a funeral in the middle of our Halloween activities, hoping to motivate my peers to use other words.
This funeral that has been held for Said has carried into the mindset of not only students, but writers as well. Writers are so afraid of using ‘said,’ for fear of sounding like a novice. What oftentimes happens as a result of this is something like this:
“I can’t believe you would do that!” Mary screamed. “Whatever,” Lizzy responded, looking for all the world as if she didn’t care at all. Mary was used to that look. Lizzy had never cared about much, but she had always cared about Mary. Her best friend. So how could she have hurt her now, and more importantly, how could it not matter to her? “Whatever?” Mary questioned, whispering, “Just, whatever?”
Let’s analyze that. Ignoring the fact that the dialogue itself is questionable, lets focus on the dialogue tags. So, obviously, the writers refused to use said; and it didn’t work to their benefit. Let’s first establish, this was not terrible. I’ve seen much worse, and this could pass off as good writing. But I’d like to analyze why, here, the use of ‘said’ could have been equally, if not more, effective.
First, ‘Mary screamed.’ Okay, yeah, that’s great and all, I’m glad that Mary is screaming. But if you want to show me that she’s mad, I don’t get it just with that. ‘Mary screamed’ tells me nothing. Is she calling someone and trying to be heard, is she angry, is she passionate? I don’t know. The primary detriment I’ve found in refusing to use ‘said’ is that writers then believe they don’t need to say anything else. Like, okay, I used a descriptive word, now my reader is totally immersed in my story. They understand the emotion with which this is being ‘said.’ Or screamed, as the case may be. Even though this is not the different dialogue tags themselves making this happen, I find it seems to directly effect the way in which writers construct their work. They use ‘descriptive’ dialogue tags as a supplement for actual descriptions, which doesn’t work. Think, wouldn’t it be better if I showed that Mary is angry? Her hands shake with rage at her sides, her face becomes blotchy with red spots, her voice trembles with anger. Show me her anger, don’t tell me that she screamed. That literally tells me nothing, and makes me feel disconnected not only from what’s happening, but from the characters.
Let’s analyze the next piece of dialogue, “Whatever,” Lizzy responded, looking for all the world as if she didn’t care at all.” The writer didn’t use said, and in this instance, it worked to their advantage. Ha, I tricked you! You thought I was going to show you how using ‘said’ is always amazing and you should never use anything else? Of course not, because that’s definitely not true. Said should not be used all the time. In this instance, the writer shows that Lizzy ‘responded,’ but didn’t stop there. They went on to say, “looking for all the world as if she didn’t care at all,” and that makes a big difference. If they had just stopped at, “Lizzy responded,” it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. When the writer adds that she didn’t care at all, that makes it powerful. That makes me feel something, as opposed to relying on ‘responded’ to do that for them.
Next, let’s look at the last piece of dialogue. “Whatever?” Mary questioned, whispering, “Just whatever?” This has to do with, now that said is dead, authors will use too many ‘descriptive words,’ and end up diminishing from their meaning. In this specific instance, I feel ‘said,’ also would have taken away from the significance of the words. In the wrong place, using ‘said; and using too many ‘descriptive’ words have the same effect. If you take out the, ‘whispering,’ questioned doesn’t really mean anything to me. If you take out, “Mary questioned,” and leave only, “Mary whispered,” that could work effectively. The distinguishing factor here is not only the words you choose, but where you choose to put them, that changes the whole meaning of your paragraph. “Whispered,” suggests that Mary feels meek, or hurt. It suggests that she doesn’t want to hear the answer she’s asking for. “Questioned,” on the other hand, doesn’t add anything to the dialogue or to the story. Instead, “questioned” alone would take away from the word’s significance. Okay, she’s questioning something, but does that really tell me anything? It’s the same with using ‘said’ here: “Whatever?” Mary said.” Said, in this instance, is the equivalent of using “questioned.” However, ‘said’ could still work to the writer’s advantage if they added something more to it.
We examined how the dialogue tags in this paragraph could be improved. Now, let me re-write the paragraph, this time using only said, and let’s see how it can be effective.
“I can’t believe you would do that!” Mary said, hands shaking at her sides and face blotchy with red spots. She was consumed with a rage that was not only foreign, but unwelcome in nature. “Whatever,” Lizzy said, looking for all the world as if she didn’t care at all. Mary was used to that look. Lizzy had never cared about much, but she had always cared about Mary. Her best friend. So how could she have hurt her now, and more importantly, how could it not matter to her? “Whatever?” Mary said, voice trembling, “Just, whatever?” Mary’s anger quickly dissipated as she numbed, the abrupt absence of her rage leaving her feeling hollow and empty.
Okay, so was that perfect? No, obviously not. But, did it have more substance than the original paragraph? Did it show you something more about Mary and how much Lizzy’s words truly meant to her? I believe so. In some places, could a word other than said have been used? Absolutely! But were the absence of ‘descriptive’ words really detrimental to the story? Not at all, because the writer made up for it with actual descriptions.
Overall, the point of this was not to make you never use anything besides ‘said,’ again. It was to help you realize that said is not dead, and that you shouldn’t rule it out. I believe that in many instances, the flow of your story will be directly connected to not only your dialogue tags, but the dialogue itself. After all, the things people say, and how they say it, is important. Your characters care about it, so you should too. Dialogue and dialogue tags guide your story and show how your characters interact with others.
Quick summary; in case you didn’t want to read my in-depth explanations as to why said is not dead, and why it can, and should be used:
- Don’t use dialogue tags as a supplement for actual descriptions.
- When paired with the right description, and with the right ‘descriptive’ word, you can add significance to the story.
- When using too many ‘descriptive’ words, you also take away from your meaning. It’s kind of like the idea from The Incredibles, ‘if everyone’s super, no one is super.’
- Honestly, just don’t get crazy. Once you start using, ‘articulate’ and similar nonsense, you aren’t adding a single thing to your story or to your meaning. At that point, just use ‘said,’ for crying out loud.
- Lastly, although I didn’t explain this above because it’s mostly circumstantial and very dependent on what you’re writing, using too many descriptive words, as well as using ‘said,’ too often, can mess up the flow of your story. I’ve found that if I’m reading and the author had used ‘said’ exclusively for the past five paragraphs, it sticks out. It’s the same issue for using too many ‘descriptive’ words, or too many of the same ones. Just watch out for the flow of your words, and see if it looks/sounds right to you.
Just remember, said isn’t dead, and you should consider it an appropriate option in your writing. I realize I haven’t written a post in quite a while, I think my last post was me making a very convoluted and long excuse for why I wouldn’t be writing a new blog post for a while. I’m glad I finally got to write this one, and that I got to focus back onto writing itself. I don’t know who’s reading this, when, or where, but have a great week. If anything, it has to be looking up just a little bit, you no longer have to go to Said’s funeral.
“For all forms, writing dialogue is almost like writing music. I pay close attention to rhythms and tones.”Sefi Atta