Is "Said" Dead? Should You Use "Said" in Dialogue? | Guest Post

by - February 10, 2019

Today I have the pleasure of presenting my third guest post! I enjoyed working with Jessie on her post, and I am very excited to share her article today!




Said is dead.
Did your English teacher or writing instructor ever tell you that? There are a thousand and one articles out there calling for said's swift demise, but there are also many fighting against its unjust condemnation.

What's the big deal, anyway, and should you be using “said” in your writing?


THE CASE AGAINST “SAID”

I remember my teacher once telling me never to use “said” when writing dialogue because it is tedious and boring. If you read the example beneath, you will understand her point:


“We both know Maia doesn't have it,” she said, “and we're running out of time.”
“Yes,” he said.” I have a plan. It's not great, but it's a start.”
She nodded seriously. “Not great is better than not at all,” she said.
He smiled. “It's you, you know,” he said.
“What is?”
“You're trying to work out what it is that has changed but everything seems exactly the same,” he said. “It's not the house Nina. It's you.”

The first time, it's not a problem, but when every dialogue tag is “said,” it ceases to be invisible and becomes distracting. One of the greatest cases against “said” is that it is invisible when used sparingly but irksome when peppering your dialogue. That's why your teachers often tell you not to use it. Here is that passage again, adapted so that each dialogue tag is replaced with a non-said tag:

“We both know Maia doesn't have it,” she stated. “And we're running out of time.”
“Yes,” he replied simply. “I have a plan. It's not great but it's a start.”
She nodded seriously. “Not great is better than not at all isn't it?” she affirmed.
“It's you, you know,” he smiled.
“What is?” she queried.
“You're trying to work out what has changed, but everything seems exactly the same,” he explained. “It's not the house that has changed Nina. It's you.”

The above has improved greatly on variety, but we have another problem: the dialogue tags are still annoying and distracting.

Many younger or new writers hear that "said is dead" and opt for substituting every usage for something more interesting. Though it is an excellent exercise for broadening your vocabulary, it's also extremely distracting for the reader.  So if you can't use “said,” and if interesting dialogue tags are problematic, what is a writer to do?

A CASE FOR COMPROMISE

“Said” is alive and healthy. One of the things I love most about the word is that it is invisible so it unobtrusively indicates who is speaking, keeping things straight in the reader's mind while still remaining in the background. It is a very useful tool that must be used sparingly – as soon as you begin to notice it, you need to think about cutting it.

But more interesting dialogue tags (whispered, screamed, cried, wailed, giggled, etc.) should also be used sparingly else they lose their effect and drive the reader to distraction. But if I'm telling you not to use “said” too much and to use other words sparingly, how on earth are you supposed to indicate who is talking? Well, take a look at this example:


"We both know Maia doesn't have it."
Paxton stared at his feet as Nina continued.
“And we're running out of time.”
“Yes.” His resolve flinched once more and he clenched his teeth, refusing to lie, but despising himself for not telling the whole truth. “I have a plan. It's not great but it's a start.”
She nodded seriously. “Not great is better than not at all, isn't it?”
He smiled, despite himself. “It's you, you know.”
She leaned on the frame of the half-open door, eyes bleary. “What is?”
“You're trying to work out what has changed, but everything seems exactly the same,” he said. “It's not the house that has changed Nina. It's you.”


Can you see the difference? Dialogue tags work and “said” works, too, but in moderation. Rather than conveying what a character is feeling through a tag, you can insert character actions into the dialogue, having them interact with one another and with the setting in order to imply attitude and tone.

Contrary to the popular maxim, “said” is not dead, but it’s best to use it (as with all things) in moderation, lest it does, indeed, die.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR



Jessie Bingham grew up in a house full of books and it has never occurred to her not to write. Her education came from reading novels tucked inside her textbooks and scribbling notes in the back of her jotter when she should have been paying more attention to French infinitives and quadratic equations. You can find her on her website: jessiebingham.com



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What do YOU think? Is "said" dead? Do you have a hard time using "said" all the time? How many words can you think of to use instead of "said"? Comment below!

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