What’s wrong with said?

By Joe Moore

What’s wrong with the word said? Why is it that some writers, particularly new ones, feel that “said” is so boring they are compelled to find new ways to tag dialog? I think that said may be the best word ever invented. What other word can be used in any story with no adverse effects on the plot or characters? What other word is as transparent, invisible and nondestructive as said?

So if all that’s true, why do so many authors need to look elsewhere for a better word? It’s like a man married to the most beautiful woman in the world but decides to stray and cheat. Said is already the best choice; why go looking anywhere else? And in my opinion, straying from said too often will make the writing look amateurish.

So when an unfaithful author strays from a perfectly happy relationship with said, where do they go? They go to: exclaimed, murmured, screamed, whispered, pleaded, shrieked, demanded, ordered, cried, shouted, and my all-time favorite, muttered. If the dialog is so weak that the writer has to re-explain what emotions or motivations are being conveyed, there may be more serious problems lurking.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” the officer commanded. Really? Does anyone doubt that “Stop or I’ll shoot” is not a command? Is it necessary for the author to assume that the reader is that dumb? In this case, no dialog tag is even needed. The officer raised his Glock. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

Then there are the extreme dialog tags, the ones in which humans speak like animals. Here’s a fact: snakes don’t talk nor do dogs or lions or bears. I don’t believe that human speech should be tagged with the sounds animals make.

“I’m going to kill you,” he hissed. No he didn’t. First, it’s physically impossible. Second, it’s melodramatic. And it makes the character look silly. In a serious, dramatic moment, it can stop the reader cold and kick them right out of the story. If a writer wants to compare a character to a snake or dog, that’s fine. But humans don’t talk like snakes because snakes can’t talk. Don’t believe me? Try saying ANYTHING while hissing. Are people staring at you?

Then there’s the laughing and crying dialog tags. “I will defeat you,” he laughed. “I hate you,” she cried. No they didn’t. But here’s what could have happened: His laughter bellowed throughout the room. “I will defeat you.” Between sobs, she shook her clenched fist at him. “I hate you.” Wow, suddenly they don’t sound like carnival freaks.

Finally, there are the dreaded adverb tags. “I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do,” he said angrily. “Thank you so much,” she said gratefully. If the character’s words are already filled with anger or gratitude, the writer doesn’t need to double-explain it. The reader gets it. Don’t insult their intelligence.

Remember, your characters’ power is in their words, not in how you tag them. If needed, said will do just fine. Or better yet, don’t use a dialog tag.

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53 thoughts on “What’s wrong with said?

  1. My romance editor prefers that we use action character tags rather than “he said.” So when I got my recent mystery back for revisions, I went overboard in the action tags and my mystery editor put back in the “he said”s. Sometimes it’s editorial preference. But definitely these choices are better than “he chortled” etc.

    • That may be a genre thing, Nancy. We used the replacements all the time in Nancy Drew, which is probably why I consider them to be appropriate mostly for YA fiction.

  2. The benefit to “said” is, after a while it reads like punctuation instead of a word, so it does not take the reader out of the moment. The last thing a writer wants is to be in the middle of some absorbing dialog and remind the reader he is, in fact, reading, and not eavesdropping. The eye recognizes “said” without having to think about it.

    Elmore Leonard sums it up best in hios Ten Rules of Writing, in two consecutive rules. (I forget which numbers.)

    Only use “said” for speech attributions.

    Never add an adverb to a speech attribution, he admonished gravely.

  3. “YES! THIS!” she type enthusiastically!

    I am firmly on “Team Said” and even then sparingly.

    The best misuse of dialogue tags I ever saw was in a weird sci-fi mish-mash on a workshop site. One of the characters was a horse-humanoid (yeah, I know).

    “I will follow you into battle,” Brame nickered softly.

    I pretty much whinnied with laughter at that one.

  4. I always tell my students, “Death to adverbs.” Frankly, I don’t have any real personal issue with adverbs, but if I don’t make it that clear for my kids, they’ll be adverbing every damn thing their characters do. My favorite is “she said sarcastically.”

    Face it, if the words themselves don’t reveal the sarcasm, then your problem isn’t the adverb you’ve added, it’s your poorly written dialogue.

    • Jake, I agree. Adverbs are a legitimate part of the English language and should be used as part of the craft of writing. But I’ve found that most new authors use them as a crutch. The more you write, the more you realize you can often life without them.

  5. Good reminder, Joe. “Said” is practically invisible, does its job, gets out of the way.

    And as Nancy warns, overuse of action tags tends to tire a reader (who has to form a picture). Best reserve those for really important actions that do “double duty.”

  6. Let me just play devil’s advocate here.

    We lecture writers (and especially new writers) to beware using the same word in a repetitive fashion–and then we tell them to use said over and over. As a reader, I notice the use of said when it’s repeated, and it bothers me. In my opinion, this is a stylist change of our times. I accept that, and like most of today’s writers, I use said.

    Second, paralanguage cues (tone, pitch, quality, speed) carry qualifying messages that support, tweak, or discount the words (according to Margie Lawson, psychologist, author, and writing instructor). No matter how you write your dialogue, you can’t convey these fully (nor does an action cue such as having them move from the sink to the coffeemaker to pour another cup). You benefit from including paralanguage cues.

    Adverbs are a short-cut to paralanguage cues and in my opinion, clunky ones. I don’t advocate using them. I simply argue that you can’t get the entire job done by writing sterling dialogue lines. Writing is richer with body language and paralanguage, and it irks me when I see writers claim that it can be done with dialogue alone and the use of said.

    Kathy

    • KS, I never met a writing rule I didn’t want to abuse or ignore. I do agree that too many he said-she saids can become distracting. This is where craftsmanship comes in–knowing the right mix of dialog tags and action staging. Here’s a simplistic example:

      “I can’t take this anymore,” she said angrily. Sue got up and left the room.

      “I can’t take this anymore.” Sue shot from her chair and stomped out of the room.

    • “We lecture writers (and especially new writers) to beware using the same word in a repetitive fashion–and then we tell them to use said over and over.”

      Yes — because “said” is unique. Readers have been programmed not to see it as a word, but more (as has been pointed out here) as a punctuation. Nobody looks at a piece of writing and complains that the author kept using a period over and over.

      “As a reader, I notice the use of said when it’s repeated, and it bothers me.”

      I think you may need to recognize that your experience is rather unique in the world of readers. Most readers simply don’t do this. I think it’s an irrefutable fact that you’re far more likely to make your writing awkward by trying to avoid repetitions of “said” than you are by overusing it.

  7. I agree with your post to an extent, Joe. Said is the great invisible word that tags who is talking without being intrusive. I use a variety of ways to keep the reader in the dialogue–from he/she said to action sentences. Adverbs are a red flare to me and I rarely use them.

    But when a woman is talking to a man and she leans in to say something, her whispering in his ear is so much more evocative than ‘she said.’

    I like certain punches of imagery and sometimes the occasion calls for more than ‘said.’ Just sayin’

    Thanks for the excellent tips. Good reminders not to overdo anything.

  8. At first “someone” (certainly not me, Joe) might think you’re being a little picky about this. But logically you’re absolutely correct about superfluous dialog tags. Looking deeper I think we’re talking about a special mindset, an attitude, where the writer gets into a completely different perspective with the scene, the action, the characters. Far be it for me to try and explain it, but I can certainly feel it when I’m reading. When the dialog is clean, the reader just blows right through it. He’s in the action and it’s happening around him. When the reader is choking on adverbs and silly explanations of what should be obvious, everything begins to plod and that old tune by The Band cranks up in the background — The Weight — and it’s time to bail.

    • Me picky, Jim, please. As I mentioned earlier, rules are meant to be broken. But we should all start out driving at the posted speed limit before we enter the Indy 500.

  9. Action is the best way to do more than a simple said. Unless of course you’re writing a series about squirrels, in which case you are free to use ‘squeaked’, ‘chirped’, or ‘peeped’ in place of said.

    At six-foot-four the two hundred sixty pound bouncer was intimidating. Few squirrels could boast mass like his. His bushy tail alone could break bones with flick.

    Regardless of size, he had the same high pitched voice shared by those of his squirrel clan. When Merle Squirrel failed to produce ID he crossed his arms, stared her down and squeaked in a high E “No way girls. No ID, No Entry.”

    The girls all loved his Chip-n-Dale voice, so squirrely.

  10. When I was rewriting a scene this afternoon, I kept recalling this post. Not that there were few “said” tags, just got stuck on it, like when you keep humming the same song after you hear it earlier in the radio.

  11. Want to read the greatest vindication ever of the word “said”? Try THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, or for that matter, any of George V Higgins’ books. He uses “he said” or “she said” after EVERY SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE. Not before, not in the middle of, but after.

    Every single line of dialogue.

    And still, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is arguably one of the greatest noir novels ever written.

  12. “It was a wonderful post,” I wept.

    Actually I didn’t, but I’ll tell you why some writers end up doing this. It’s because kids’ textbooks tell them to.

    I home school, and every time we come to creative writing chapters, I have to correct what they tell my kids about using “said” versus all the other wonderful melodramatic choices. (I’ve run into this with more than one curriculum, too.) I explain to my kids that “said” and “asked” are basically invisible and are almost always the best choices. It might be okay to use some of those other words once in a while, but they should be used cautiously and purposefully. My personal view is that when it comes to dialogue tags, it’s better yet to limit their use in many cases and instead replace them with action sentences.

    Example:

    “Fred booby-trapped my locker,” she said.

    This could become:

    “Fred booby-trapped my locker.” Alison wiped whipped cream out of her eyes.

  13. Joe, you know I love you, man, but you’re way off base on this one. I believe that dialogue tags offer great opportunities. For the sake of argument, take the line, “Give it back.”

    In this instance, he growled, he threatened, he whispered and he shouted are all stronger, in my opinion, that a simple he said.

    • John, thanks for swinging by your old stomping grounds. There are many great books written with stylistic dialogue tags–yours included. My suggestions are aimed, not at the level of a writer like yourself, but those starting out on this insane journey writing fiction. I’ll buy your threatened, whispered and shouted as being better than said, but I still have a problem with animal attributes (unless the story is fantasy). Just my personal preference. Humans can threaten, whisper and shout, but it’s tough to speak and growl at the same time. See if this works:

      “Give it back.” The words came out like a growl, more animal that human.

    • ~”Give it back.” The words came out like a growl, more animal that human.~

      But wouldn’t “he growled” be a smoother run for a reader than the extra sentence of explanation?

    • Debatable, Rob. John G’s example is taken out of context. We have no idea how it ties in to the story, pacing or style. My example was to simply show that it can be done without animal attributes used at dialog tags.

    • In contradistinction to all, the line “Give it back” doesn’t need any attribution at all. It would be (or should be) obvious from the scene itself how something is BEING said. Which is why you should not need adverbs or euphemisms for “said.” To add “growl” here is “gilding the lily” as they say (or as they SAID).

      However, “whispered” would be necessary in most contexts. Other than that, “said” or an action or nothing at all (most of the time).

    • The idea of using ‘growl’ as a replacement for said makes me wince. It would bother me if I ran across it in fiction. There are much fresher ways to convey the meaning. I left a longer comment later in the thread. Kathryn, writing from Vienna

  14. All I can say is look at the classics. If other words for said were okay for those great authors, why is it so wrong for today’s authors to use them?

    • Hi Kristy, thanks for visiting TKZ. Just like styles change with cultural tastes in all the arts, they continually evolve with literature. Some of the classics would not sell well today if published in their original form, not because of the story content, but because of the thicker, more wordy writing styles of years ago. Most contemporary authors write in a crisp, clean style that helps the reader move quickly through the story. I believe that anything that slows the reader down or stops the eye should be rethought and rewritten.

    • Sorry for being a day late here.

      A lot of my thinking regarding Said vs Replied, Explained, Shouted, and Sighed, is tied to a mix of “don’t repeat words” and “don’t work too hard to write.”

      My personal take is that it’s mostly a stylistic thing, though I agree that not slowing down the reader ~too much~ is a good thing. On the other hand, why not write at a level where the reader has to flex a little along the way, to savor the story and the style rather than racing to the end to grab the next book? As long as the general pace of the reading is smooth, then you should be okay.

      But that’s also based a lot on audience, isn’t it? For some readers it’s about enjoying the ride, for others it’s about getting to the end and finding out how it all ends in a single sitting.

      Of course I also get in trouble because I’ve had stretches where I’ve dropped speaker tags and just done a rapid 5 or 6 lines of dialogue back and forth between two characters. That also does not endear me to readers.

    • Thanks again for dropping by TKZ, Rob. At the end of the day, it all boils down to style. I know for instance, that John Gs books contain dialogue tags I personally would not use. Having said that, I love his novels despite this major flaw in his style. (Just kidding John). But I feel that if new writers get into the habit of concentrating on clean crisp writing where the dialogue, actions and inner thoughts of the characters convey their emotion and feelings, less reliance on extended tags will be needed.

  15. Joe–
    “Great post!” he bloviated. Actually, it is a great post. If a writer also applies what you’ve said to everything else, to instances where exaggerated figures of speech and word choice rush in to fill noun,adjective and adverb slots, think how much better that writer’s work would be. He said.

  16. Kristy K. James–
    Joe Moore is right: as times change, so do manners, clothes, prose styles. Imagine a nineteenth-century family sitting in a room after dinner, listening to the father or mother reading this week’s serialized chapter of the latest Charles Dickens novel. No one is bored, no kid leaves to go play video games, no one present is staring down into a hand-held “device,” etc. They are all riveted by what’s being read, they hang on every word, love the long descriptions and the over-the-top authorial observations. If you can see such a moment, it’s easy to know why the speed of delivery that characterizes most modern prose is so different.

  17. Thanks for saying what you said, Barry. Your advice on applying the “less is more” rule to all aspects of the story-writing process can’t be argued with, Joe said arguably.

  18. I’ve maintained for years that “said” is all but invisible in good dialogue. Perhaps learning to use it goes along with learning to write dialogue that doesn’t require the reader to be told the speaker’s emotional state.
    Or not…

  19. I’m a fan of ‘said’, and I get irritated when I read replacements for it in fiction. I have put down books when I’ve encountered too many instances of ‘retorted,’ ‘shouted,’ and the like. Those tags are very popular in the Nancy Drew books I used to write, and i think they are most appropriate for that type of fiction. But some readers may not be turned off by them like I am.
    I would rather add an action to the dialogue to convey a refinement, rather than replace ‘said’. Example:
    The cop aimed a meaningful scowl at Tom’s camera.
    “That’s as far as you two go,” he said.
    That, or something like that, to me is stronger than replacing said. I think writers sometimes reach for alternative dialogue tags rather than try to convey the scene in other ways.

    -Kathryn Lilley (writing from Vienna)

  20. I belong to a different camp. The camp where people don’t read dialog tags, or pretty much anything outside quotes, at all.

    I’ve blogged about it, and I think my name will link back there.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

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