say said

There’s a lot of bad writing advice on the internet, if you look for it. And even if you don’t. As in, really pathetically bad writing advice. A lot of it, I’m sorry to say, is written by writers, or agents, or publishers. And the reason it’s so pathetically bad isn’t because they’re bad writers or agents or publishers, but more that either they’re trying to express something they learned intuitively—which is a distinct skill from being a good writer, or agent, or publisher, in fact—or because they have their own heads crammed full of bad advice which they unwittingly ignore when they write, agent, or publish.

In fact—here’s a secret—you can find some pretty bad writing advice in the archives of this very blog. I won’t link to it: that wouldn’t be kind to anyone.

But the silliest piece of pathetically bad advice that I’ve read recently seems—alarmingly—to have gained some traction. I don’t know if it’s an internet meme or if it’s inveigled its way into creative writing classrooms (though I have suspicious) ,but it’s a doozy. It flies brazenly in the face both of normal literary usage and competent handling of  style.

That’s the rule prohibiting use of the word ‘said’. The rule that declares, as one young lady blogger said, “Said is Dead.”

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Said through the ages. According to this ngram, rather than dying ‘said’ seems to be reviving, occurring in the Google Books corpus with as much frequency as a hundred years ago. Shaking off that Hemingway influence, perhaps?

I’ll lay aside the question of whether there’s any word in the language that a writer should simply and inherently never use in any context. And it does seem topsy-turvy that we can and do use various obscenities but are meant to avoid ‘said’. It’s the sort of rule that smacks of the pomposity and fussy self-importance of a blanket condemnation of adverbs.

I think the logic behind it goes something like this: Strong writing equips itself with strong verbs. The tendency to weak verbs should be expunged. So why not start with expunging boring ol’ said—probably the most colourless verb in the lexicon?

And I suspect it’s trying to expunge turns of style like this (taken from memory from a book I read as a child, but with names changed to protect the innocent).

Henry said: “I think we can all safely say that this has been a wonderful vacation.”

Violet said: “Oh my, who has been turning over the bins in the tree house?”

Henry said: “Well, I guess you never can have a vacation without a mystery.”

When I read that (or something rather like it) at the tender age of ten, even I could tell that the style clunked like a tractor falling down a manhole.

But the problem there isn’t with the innocuous little word ‘said’; the problem there is with weak style, full stop. Suppose we eradicate said—will it help the passage at all?

Henry stated: “I think we can all safely say that this has been a horrible vacation.”

Violent remarked: “Oh my, who has been burning down the tree house?”

Henry declared: “Well, that’s better.”

More interesting? Sure. But not because I didn’t use said—mostly because I got bored with the original sample text and set things on fire. (Hey, it worked for Suzanne Collins.) And the stated/remarked/declared triumvirate are are, if anything, even more ponderous and clunky than the three saids.

The point is this: said is colourless not because it’s dull but because it’s lucid. It does not produce monochrome but clarity. It is clear and unnoticeable, and that’s what you want most of the time when you’re writing dialogue.

Words other than said have their place, naturally, but they need to be used carefully and deliberately—don’t go flinging them about willy-nilly. To say that someone remarked or shouted or declared is forceful and weighting, inserting a heavy caesura (of sorts) into the flow of the dialogue. Said is valuable precisely because it so limpidly dissolves into the scenery; the reader hardly notices.

If you’re trying to liven up your dialogue by thinking up alternatives to said, you’re barking up the wrong creek without a paddle. All the odd said-words in the world won’t make lively dialogue interesting; they can and do bog down lively dialogue in an excruciating slog of ponderous stops and starts.

One’s writerly focus should be making the dialogue itself strong, vivid and sharp, not on selecting flashing indicating verbs. How something is said—whether it’s barked or shouted or snivelled or snorted or chortled or spluttered or stammered or spat—should be clear from what is being said. The choice and phrasing and pacing of words is itself the first and best indicator of how your characters are talking—that and the reader’s imagination.

Because, let’s face it: if you think your character looks and sounds like David Tennant, but your reader thinks they looks and sounds like Al Pacino, there’s just no way that carefully clarifying that a character is barking, scolding, shouting, or sneering is going to convey to the reader the same utterance you’re hearing.

The roots of strong dialogue are in drama, of course, and God doesn’t write better dialogue than Shakespeare—whose dialogue is simply indicated by the name. Here, as in so much else, should be your gold standard of English literature.

Hemingway’s name also comes to mind about now, and his infamously long passages of dialogue without said or any other indicator—just pages of dialogue without names. Like a screenwriter playing a practical joke. But Hemingway, of course, was just refining what the Victorians already did—there are similarly long, un-indicated passages in George MacDonald, for instance, and I think Dickens. It didn’t originate with Hemingway or even in the twentieth century, that’s sure.

All this has been said by others before so I won’t belabour it further. I’ll just close with Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on the matter:

Said is safe and as your friends correctly observe, it disappears. That doesn’t mean you should use it exclusively, but watching someone cycle through a set of words that describe the act of speech while trying desperately not to use the word said can be painful.

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One thought on “say said

  1. “If you’re trying to liven up your dialogue by thinking up alternatives to said, you’re barking up the wrong creek without a paddle.”

    HAHAHAHAHA!

    You’ve been writing some good stuff lately. And I’ve been enjoying reading it. Welcome back to the blogosphere. 🙂

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