Say what?! Writing Pitfalls #2 — Charlotte Graham

I will begin the second installment in my creative writing advice series by saying that this is, perhaps, the most controversial entry you’ll read. That’s because, the “rules” discussed herein are somewhat counter-intuitive, and I’m not even entirely sure that I’m sold on them both yet myself.

What rules might I be talking about, you’re wondering?

Both relate to dialogue. The first rule is, be careful not to use verbs for speech that aren’t synonyms of “to say.” I’ll jump into some examples soon, so don’t worry if that’s unclear for now. The second rules is to use the word “said” as much as possible.

Now, for some examples of rule number one. All three of the following pieces of dialogue are from Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin, whose review you can read here. In all of these examples, Logan misuses verbs by adding them to dialogue.

‘Any day now, Green,’ Radeth mocked.

Mocking is not a synonym for speaking. It is a behavior done to an indirect object.

‘Do not talk, Thanan,’ Kilian scolded firmly, cutting the boy off. ‘You will listen.’

Scolding is not a form of uttering words. You cannot scold some words at someone.

‘Ten years,’ Grimmach seethed, breaking the silence.

Again, one cannot seethe a string of words. In fact, seethe is intransitive and can’t even be done to a person in the way that mocking and scolding can.

I will grant that this rule is rather grammatically nit-picky. However, ever since it was first pointed out to me in a creative writing workshop, it has become a huge pet peeve. There really are only a handful of words that can be used interchangeably with “to say:” speak, utter, whisper, shout, et cetera. Any other verb you want to use needs to be fit in the sentence in a different way, like the following:

‘Any day now, Green,’ Radeth said in a mocking tone of voice.

Now, onto the more controversial rule of dialogue: use the word ‘said’ as much as possible. Honestly, when I first heard this rule years ago, I didn’t believe. ‘Said’ just sounds like such a boring word! How could it possibly be good writing advice to use it most of the time in lieu of more flavorful verbs.

Yet, time and again, in both the workshop I attended as well as in writing panels, online forums, and writing blogs, I keep seeing this rule being espoused. On some writing message board recently, I actually saw someone say something to the effect of, “You can always tell a newbie writer by two things: they rarely use the word ‘said,’ and they overuse adverbs.” Guilty as charged, on both counts.

And, hell, that many published authors can’t be wrong. So I am skeptically accepting the second rule of dialogue discussed here.

So, what do you say?

Teehee, see what I did there? 🙂

Do you agree or disagree with my two rules of dialogue? Are there other rules of dialogue to which you adhere?

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte

via Say what?! Writing Pitfalls #2 — Charlotte Graham


10 thoughts on “Say what?! Writing Pitfalls #2 — Charlotte Graham

  1. I agree with using the word “said” for speech or shout or whisper, or utter. Here’s another interesting no, no. Is it “Said Bob”, or is it “Bob said”, I have been told it is Bob said. Am I correct? (sorry about the quotation marks, I am told to use them sparingly and probably not were I put them in the comment.) Thank you for a very instructive post! K. D. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found myself wondering this just the other day. I marvel at how many things like this crop up when you become suddenly conscious of them. It can be infuriating! In this case I sorted out my thinking – always ‘he said’ ‘she said’, ‘I said’ but if a named person is used, then either way around – said Lucy, Lucy said, depending on the flow. Lovely post.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes it was Lynne. I am about to finish my third novel and I read about using He said, she said, early on after realizing I was using adverbs instead and now it makes complete sense t use he said, she said, of course. I know write: Stop that, he said, with a loud voice. I have read a number of books that don’t even bother to announce who is speaking and that is a complete turn off to wonder what character is saying what. Thank you for your great comment. K. D. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Charlotte and I wound up knee deep in conversation over this as it totally negates advice I’ve received from elsewhere. I have favoured the use of the verb myself as I get personally frustrated by seeing ‘said’ everywhere. To me as a reader it doesn’t read more professionally at all. It reads to me like the writer struggles to be descriptive. Almost like ‘said’ is a crutch word.

    Now, if I as a reader get that sensation then surely others will too. In the end it’s the reader we have to impress more than our peers surely. While use of verbs in place of ‘said’ or variants thereof might be grammatically questionable one question should be asked: does the sentence still make sense? If so then I really don’t see an issue. I have a real problem with writers who accuse others of coming across amateurish just because they have their way of doing things. I might come across as amateurish, but they come across as pompous.

    I dedicated a post to rules on my blog that talks about this. Hopefully you’ll come across it before long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Believe me, I am as conflicted as yourself. Personally, I feel it becomes a little monotonous to rely on ‘said.’ As Charlotte says in her post, you can’t ‘scold’ at someone, but the image of someone standing there wagging a finger is more easily conveyed than ‘said mom with a scolding tone.’ In my opinion, that just gets wordy.

      I’ll search for your post and reblog to provide a counter argument. I think it’s a great point of discussion, but completely agree with you – if you have a way of doing something, stick with it. Authors are allowed to have their own style. Thanks for your reply!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for sharing a very informative post from one of my favourite bloggers 🙂 Charlotte is unfairly talented and definitely going on to big things.

        I would have linked you to it directly except things become increasingly more difficult when using my phone instead of my laptop.

        I think this a definite ‘if the shoe fits’ situation where nobody is really wrong as such.

        Liked by 1 person

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