Friday, May 24, 2013

The "Said" Debate

Some authors will say that when writing the only dialogue tag that should be used is the word "said." This confuses me mainly because when I was taking Journalism my teachers told me the same thing. I believe that journalism (reporting the news) and being an author (telling a story) are different. In fact, I remember reading a quote from a famous author (I can't remember who) saying something like: "All journalists have a fiction story inside them. That's where they should keep it."

If that's the case why are we as authors told to always use the word "said" in dialogue? Why are we being told to be like our news-reporting cousins? The answer to that is usually: 1) the reader ignores the dialogue tags anyway and 2) the familiarity of said prevents it from drawing attention to itself.

That second part of that is fine but the first part is irksome. Why should we as authors who have spent weeks (months or years) writing, re-writing, editing, scraping, and re-doing our novels be okay with letting someone ignore part of what we've written? Why should we be fine with readers ignoring part of our hard work and dedication to our craft? Why are we being told it's okay to ignore a tool in our author's tool kit?

Letting all dialogue tags be "said" is like a plumber ignoring his wrench. Dialogue tags are part of our word counts, they're part of our stories and we should pay just as much attention to them as we do to pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, sentence structure, plot, characters and everything else.

If the reader skips a dialogue tag it's not good enough reason for authors to simply replace all of them with one word. Some readers skip over description of places or certain scenes, so should we stop writing descriptions or certain scenes?

I'm not saying that every dialogue tag should be a word different than "said." I'm saying to mix it up a bit. Used "whispered," "muttered", "uttered", "grumbled", "whined", "shouted", "told", "informed", "described", "voiced", "answered", "responded", "exclaimed", "cried", and "mumbled" occasionally. Throw in a few "said with a(n) *insert action here*." These words give feeling to what the character is saying and the description that comes after the dialogue amplifies it. Besides, if we all just "said" things, we'd be talking like monotone robots all the time.

There are many that would disagree but even Stephen King has used "exclaimed", "told", "repeated", and "amplified" all within a few pages (51-55) in his book Thinner. A more recent example is Under the Dome pages 277-279 where "whispered", "shouted", and "cried" appear. There's also a "said dully" and a "said eagerly" mixed in among the "saids."

Dialogue is all about balance and I think a constant repetition of the word said (or no dialogue tags at all) will stifle it. Balancing it with other dialogue tags and a few describers makes for more interesting reading. "Said" should always be the most common dialogue tag as various ones would get too distracting but there is no problem with mixing it up a bit.

I have to admit the reason I wanted to write this blog was because of a thread in the NaNo forums. Some authors there agreed with the prospect that "readers ignore the dialogue tag anyway" and were telling (see what I did there?) other authors that "said" was the only dialogue tag that should be used all the time. One even went so far to say it was the only dialogue tag used besides "told" if (s)he wanted to mix things up. I ask (again): why should we allow (and be okay with) readers ignoring part of our work? It is because it's convenient for them? Is it because we're in this fast-paced world and reader's want to burn through books on their eReaders? Those are not good enough reasons.

Our characters, plots, dialogue tags, scenery, and slew of others elements are equivalent to a plumber's wrench, snake, screw drivers and pliers. If plumbers ignore tools of their trade the result could be disastrous. I'd like to think the same applies for authors.

So what do you think? Should authors obliterated every word but "said" from our dialogue tags? Should it be a mix? Why?


  1. I agree with mixing it up - characters do more than just "say" words - but just like any other part of your writing, don't go overboard; your characters don't have to "masticate" when they could just chew, and they shouldn't "emit carefully from their velvety throats" when they could just /say/. As always, i think it's a balancing act :-) Also that velvety throat thing might be the worst thing I've written in a week. Great entry!

    1. (I suck at replying to things, as you can see...haha).

      It IS a balancing act. I was going overboard about two years ago as in using everything BUT said. It was bad. Very bad. I groan outloud editing that stuff sometimes.

      The velvety throat thing made me laugh because I wrote something similiar to it a few novels back. Then I said (to my cat) "how are throats velvety? Don't I mean voice? Why am I overthinking this so much? Screw it, he's saying it for now."