I was on Pinterest the other day and saw a pin titled “Said is Dead.” From what I can tell, this sentiment has sparked a debate as people decide whether or not the use of the word said should really be cut from writing.
I agree that repetition of the word said can be tiresome, as seen below:
“I’ll take care of the horses,” Jim said.
“Well, I might as well get supper started, then,” Karen said.
“Thanks, dear!” Jim said.
But avoiding the word said like it’s a literary plague can make one’s writing sound clunky, as if, by using synonyms of the word, you’re trying too hard to impress people with your extensive vocabulary.
“I’ll take care of the horses,” Jim noted.
“Well, I might as well get supper started, then,” Karen announced.
“Thanks, dear!” Jim exclaimed.
Perhaps the issue is simply a misdiagnosis. In both of the above cases, I wrote the dialogue, followed by the speaker’s name, and the dialogue tag. Nothing else is going on – just the dialogue. But the whole point of using words like “noted,” “announced,” and “exclaimed” is to show how the words are being spoken. Essentially, they’re meant to show the tone of the speaker’s words. And while they are description words, and do help the reader figure out how the words are being spoken, they are a lot closer to the tell than the show.
Below, I revised the three lines of dialogue so it varies in structure, and I added some action along with it.
“I’ll take care of the horses,” Jim said, pointing over his shoulder, at the off-red barn.
Karen nodded her head, as if she’d expected little else. “Well, I might as well get supper started, then.”
A grin broke across Jim’s face. “Thanks, dear!” He punctuated his words with a hasty kiss, and then the two of them went their separate ways.
While it’s by no means a masterpiece in terms of writing, it sounds far better than the first two examples. And, in case you didn’t notice, the only dialogue tag I used was said, in the first line. The rest were action tags, to show both who is speaking and what they’re doing while they were talking.
But don’t take my word for it. Below are some randomly selected examples from two books published by authors I admire.
“I can’t hear you,” Katsa said.
He cleared his throat. “I have a family. I have a family to care for. Do what you will, but I beg you not to kill me.”
“You don’t want me to kill you for the sake of your family?”
A tear ran into his bear. “And for my own sake. I don’t want to die.” (Graceling, chapter 4, page 40)
In the above example, Kristin Cashore uses “said” only once, and then uses action tags to clarify who is speaking. Of course, since in this scene there are only two people present, the speaker doesn’t always need to be mentioned. See the third piece of dialogue, so obviously spoken by Katsa as a response to the man’s statement.
“…roaring along like maniacs, the young hoodlums,” he said, as a motorcycle overtook them.
“I had a dream about a motorcycle,” said Harry, remembering suddenly. “It was flying.”
Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beet with a mustache: “MOTORCYCLES DON’T FLY!”
Dudley and Piers sniggered.
“I know they don’t,” Harry said. “It was only a dream.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter 2, page 26)
In this example, J. K. Rowling uses only the word said, with the exception of yelled in the third line of dialogue. Still, the reader hardly notices the repetition, and the way the dialogue is presented shows clearly enough who is speaking and how they are saying it.
I think the whole point of this argument is to encourage people to expand their vocabulary, so they have alternative words in their toolbox if and when they end up needing them. After all, said won’t always cut it. However, I believe it’s dangerous to say don’t use said, said is bad, said is overused, because it really depends on the context.
As Mark Twain said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” To say you need to spruce up your writing by using synonyms of “dead” words is to encourage people to consult the thesaurus in search for the biggest, most uncommon word they can find. Unfortunately, the result either tends to be a word that doesn’t properly depict what’s going on, or the writer finds a word that does work in terms of definition but not in terms of audience and contexts.