Ah, yes. The great debate over whether or not people should still use “said” in their writing. But is said dead? Or are we just going nuts over it?
How ominous. Talking about whether something is completely dead or not.
If you’ve been in the writing community for a while, you’ve probably seen all sorts of debates over whether or not you should use “said” in your writing. People’s arguments range from it being redundant and boring to it not really serving a purpose.
There are just reasons for each argument and that’s why I find myself saying, “well…” whenever someone brings up the topic.
I recently saw a ton of different graphics floating around Tumblr with things you could use instead of said. And while they could be helpful to those just starting out, they could cause some real issues for people who are actually doing just fine with their writing.
That’s where the problem lies, I think.
People look at all the other people saying said is dead and then go through their entire manuscript getting rid of or replacing every single “said” they can find.
Uh. No no. Please don’t do that.
So I just wanted to talk about that while it’s fresh in my mind and give my two cents, my own thoughts on the matter
Now, these are just based off what I think when I read and how I go about using dialogue tags in my own writing.
Pitfalls Writers Make When Replacing “Said”
I get the desire to replace this word. It’s boring, it doesn’t say much, and quotation marks often serve as a sound replacement depending on the situation.
But I also know if you’re new to writing or don’t get how to replace this with something better, you can get into trouble. Here’s where I’ve seen a lot of people go wrong when they try to replace “said.”
1. They use too many other tags instead
Basically, they just replace “said” with literally any other past-tense word that means they’re talking.
I think you get it. And while these things are totally useful, using them and only them over and over and over again is really annoying to read. It’s all too similar. It’s basically just using said’s cousin – and not the cool cousin.
Usually in these instances, though, I find that the people writing don’t vary their dialogue at all. They don’t use body language or any other helpful means of telling you someone was speaking.
2. They just ditch a tag completely
There are absolutely times when people can talk without tags. If there are only two of them, we get it and can keep track for a while. I’ve just been seeing more and more people dropping “said” because someone told them not to use it.
…but then they don’t add anything else and we lose track of who’s speaking really soon. This is why telling people to get rid of “said” is a bad thing for certain writers.
3. They use something that takes away from the dialogue itself
You’ll read more on this in just a minute, but there’s a time and place for simple dialogue tags and if you replace “said” in a moment where the dialogue is super important, it can take away from what’s being said.
Adding in a big description of dialogue while a character is telling a super important section of backstory isn’t the greatest. If that information is crucial to the MC and even the plot (aka, something the readers will have to remember) keeping it simple and using “said” can actually be much better.
4. They slow down the pacing
Not every form of dialogue needs to have anything after it. If there are only two people talking and it’s a rather quick moment of back-and-forth, using nothing is best.
Why? Because if you use a dialogue tag after each thing they say, it slows down the pacing. You won’t have that fast banter or quick arguing that can really put someone in the moment of a scene. Throwing in tons of body language and other description can just slow down the moment and drag it out longer than necessary.
You don’t want impatient readers, do you?
What to Use Instead of “Said”
Now that all of that’s out there, there are times when using “said” is just lazy. There’s a lot you can add in place of “said” that can really bring your dialogue to life and show us more about your characters, how they feel about who they’re talking to, and even the world.
1. Body language
This is my favorite way of writing dialogue. Obviously, I switch things up but I truly believe, in my own writing and while reading other books, that dialogue does more than any tag can.
Why? Because it’s what we use in real life. We watch someone while they’re talking to us and pick up on how they’re feeling. Plus, body language is really hard for a person to hide. We do it subconsciously most of the time.
Meaning, if you have a character trying to hide how they’re feeling, you can still have them standing with slumped shoulders and their head tilted down – like they’re bummed about something.
For example: “Yeah, it was…fun.” Her shoulders sank at the last word. “You missed a good time.”
That tells you a hell of a lot more about how she’s feeling than if I were to write: “Yeah, it was…fun,” she said. “You missed a good time.”
Plus, we learn a lot more about her as a character based on wherever she was that was clearly not fun – and why she feels the need to lie about it.
2. Simple tags
Yes, you can use other dialogue tags. It just has to be every now and then and not every single line of dialogue.
If someone asked a question and you need to let the reader know who’s speaking for whatever reason, you can just say “they asked.” instead of said or anything else.
You can also use simple tags to quickly describe how someone’s reacting without slowing down the pacing. Something like “he snarled.” tells you exactly how it was said, but keeps a tense moment moving along at a speed your readers will stay engaged in.
3. The sounds of their voice
I love knowing how someone said something and what happens to their voice. Humans have a lot of different variations in how we talk. It’s not all monotone.
And guess what! Different pitches and tones and the way we speak says a lot about how we’re feeling. If our voices go high, we could be lying or nervous or tense. If it’s low, we could be pissed off…or trying to be sexy.
The way someone says something can be more important than even their body language and it paints a much more vivid picture than “said.”
When “said” is the best choice
Yes, it’s true. Sometimes “said” really is the best choice and I’ll let you know why I think so. And since I doubt you’ve ever read a book that doesn’t feature this word at least a
hundred few times, here’s why it works when they do use it.
1. the dialogue is more important than how it’s said
If something really important is being talked about – like a major detail of a backstory or even a really cute/sappy moment, I want to be focused on that. I don’t really want to be dragged out of that dialogue because of a lengthy description.
But if you need to let the readers know who’s talking, using said in this instance is best. It makes them focus on what’s being said instead of anything else that’s going on.
2. you have to show who’s speaking, but that’s it
Aka, you want to keep the pacing pretty fast but have to make sure the reader knows who’s saying what – since there’s probably more than one person speaking in the scene. It’s really as simple as that.
You can also just use it if you’ve been using a lot of body language and other descriptions and want to vary it a bit.
The trick to using said and keeping it alive
It’s variation. Pretty simple. Don’t write dialogue in the same exact way every time someone speaks. Sometimes you can use said, other times throw in more body language description, sometimes don’t use anything, and then other times make us hear their voice while they speak.
Keeping things interesting by varying it will allow people to not get sick of “said.”
So is said really dead? I would most definitely say no. But I do think said should stay inside and only be allowed out during certain times and in certain situations. Again, this is just my thoughts while reading and writing and issues I’ve seen a lot in other’s writing. Ultimately, it’s up to you and how you think your dialogue sounds for the scene.