adverbs, Dialogue Tags, Said-bookisms, Strong vs Weak Words, Strong Words, Weak Verbs, Weak Words, writers, writing
You know how I’m an advocate for using strong words vs weak words? Here is one weak word I think you need to stick with. “Said.” There. I said it.
The great and powerful Elmore Leonard wrote in a New York Times article:
“Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
I agree with Mr. Leonard.
Dialogue tags other than “said” are distracting, and sometimes silly. Take this for example:
“Robin’s blog is a delight,” Madame Weebles smiled.
No one can smile a sentence. Not even Madame Weebles.
Odds are, if Madame Weebles is talking about something as delightful as my blog, she is smiling. Also, think of her as she wrings out from Sandy’s deluge.
“Robin is a sham. She spouts nonsensical writing advice,” Le Clown sneered.
No one, except Le Clown, can sneer a sentence.
Using “said” as a dialogue tag blends into the wallpaper and the reader glides over the word. The words inside the quotation marks need to convey when someone “thunders,” “squeaks,” or “groans.” When the speaker “snorts,” I run for the Kleenex box.
My book group read a worthless book in October. I wasted my precious reading time on a poorly written story and I wanted to throw the book across the room. Foreshadowed promises were never fulfilled, characters were mamby-pamby, and at the end, there was no point except the author had the chance to hear herself think.
The capper for me with the book was the dialogue tag she used throughout. Oh, and her overuse of adverbs.
“What nonsense,” Peter smugly says. “There are no devils.”
So she says bravely, “That’s right. Grandma made up the story.”
But finally he says, with a flat voice, “Grandma knows about devils.”
“Says” was fingernails on a chalkboard. The only consolation for me was that if she could be published, perhaps there is hope for me.
I think it is fine to use an “asked” dialogue tag now and then. But really, the question mark lets us know it is a question.
In writing this post, I learned that using a word other than “said” in dialogue has a name . . . “Said-Bookism.” I also learned there is a writerly debate over the issue. Some people love to have their characters “croak,” “hiss,” and “bellow.”
Where do you stand on the issue? Do you stick to Plain Jane “she said” or do you venture into the colorful world of “she grimaced?” While we are debating, do you prefer “dialogue” or “dialog?”
Shannon M. Howell said:
I was quite busy in November, but I’m glad I made it back here for this. Excellent post.
Generally, I agree. However, I think there is room for placing action with dialogue. For instance, it won’t bother me if a character grimaces before or after he speaks.
Shannon grimaced. “I can’t believe I’m writing about myself.”
“I can’t believe I’m writing about myself.” Shannon grimaced. “This sentence is awkward at best.”
It wouldn’t bother me if it were written as:
“I can’t believe I’m writing about myself.” Shannon grimaced, “This sentence is awkward at best.”
However, you are technically right that it reads as if the words are being grimaced instead of a grimace before the words are spoken.
I think that most readers don’t notice the difference, so it is effectively a question of how much of a pause the author wishes to make.
So, while I agree, I think there are times when it is important to show what a character is doing during a conversation and, at those times, it is acceptable to break this rule. The best example would be when a character has an unusual reaction to something that is said and the author wishes to show that the character has become nervous (or angry/distracted/etc).
The only other things I would add is that “said” can be overused as well. Just as the question mark indicates a question, the quotation marks indicate speaking. If it’s obvious who is talking, said can also be dispensed with on occasion.
Glad you stopped by Shannon. I still contend the sentence should read:
Shannon grimaced and said, “That Robin is a fool!” But, it all boils down to style and preference. Lots of writers use other dialogue tags other than “said.”
Shannon M. Howell said:
It should. I agree. That’s why I tend to make them separate sentences. The exception is if I need the pace to be a bit faster.
Let's CUT the Crap! said:
Some times, my nails scrape the blackboard regarding, she said, he said. Said, said. said. If you have two people talking, it’s obvious who’s saying what. I drop tags when the conversation is short and back and forth. Instead of using adverbs, how about some ‘showing’ what’s going on instead. Period inside the quotations. New sentence: She pouted and adjusted her glasses.
On the other hand, I believe the debate on ‘said’ isn’t over.
Interesting ideas on this post. Another fantastic post, Robin.
It is cool when the “who is talking” is clear and you don’t need the repetitive dialogue tags.
Yes, the debate on “said” wages on . . .
Pingback: Strong vs Weak Words ~ Part 36 ~ Strong Sentences « Robin Coyle
I did not read all the other opinions here, but I will state (say?) for the record that I enjoy an occasional stray from “said” in dialogue. “He said with a sneer” is much better than “He sneered” as, you are right, you can’t sneer a sentence. But, “said” works well almost all the time. I simply like some variation at times.
Weird. This comment went to my spam folder. Weird. What’s up WordPress?
The challenge is making the words inside the quotation marks sound sneery. Is sneery a word? It should be. If you can’t make it sound sneery, then adding the additional tag of “He said with a sneer” does the job!
I am thinking that the words “but I will…” put it into spam.
but will state (say?)
Did it go into trash?
Pete Denton said:
I’m firmly in the said camp and HATE ADVERBS. Phew, that feels better.
I try and read my dialogue out loud so I can decide whether any tags are required or where the beat rests to include a he said. I might use a replied or similar, but often take them out on the next draft because they stick out like a sore thumb.
You know where you are with said. 🙂
Glad you got that off your chest!
Reading dialogue aloud is an excellent way to hear if it sounds natural . . . or like a bad Western movie.
Pete Denton said:
There’s nothing wrong with a bad Western. Wait, yes there is 🙂
The only consolation for me was that if she could be published, perhaps there is hope for me.
LOVE it! Gives me hope too, Robin!
This is a fantastic and very useful post, Robin. 🙂 I think I am guilty of adding adverbs. The problem with the world of writing is that there are so many opinions… I know people that would moan that only using “said” would make your work highly repetitive and demonstrate that you have a limited vocabulary. But I would agree with the points that have been made within this article. Surely you’re trying to suck your readers into your story, to such an extent that they’ve forgotten it’s a story… they shouldn’t be distracted by weird word choice.
Oh, and as a Brit, I prefer ‘dialogue’. What can I say, we just love our ‘u’s. Ha! 🙂 Have a great day, Robin. 🙂
“Dialog” looks naked to me without the ‘”ue” tacked on the end covering up it’s privates.
It is tempting to add an adverb on after the word “said.” When I am tempted, I try to make the dialogue more interesting. Not always easy!
You have a great day too. Me? I’m recovering from the blow out bash we had here last night. What a mess I am left with. Bloggers are a rowdy bunch!
You know, Robin. We’ve been encouraged at uni, as part of our Editing and Publishing course, to make space for other writers. I just want to commend you for all that you’re doing for us to help us improve our writing process. It’s very generous of you and it’s much appreciated! 🙂
Aw shucks Katy. You always make me smile.
Plus, I love how you call school a ‘uni.’ How very British of you.
Lol. So funny to be called British. That sounds so posh. lol. 🙂 I’m glad to make you smile! 🙂
Cathy Ulrich said:
Great post, Robin. When writing dialogue, I typically use said, but do mix it up with replied. Then again, I’ll leave off “he said” or “she said” altogether if it’s clear who’s doing the talking.
Thanks Cathy. And, thanks for the follow!
I like mixing up where the “s/he said” falls in the sentences too. It helps with the pacing of the story/conversation.
I don’t want to seem self-serving here, but I hope you check out the other posts in this Strong vs Weak Word series. It has been well received and many asked me to put it in book form. Not that anyone would buy it, but nice to be asked!~
Cathy Ulrich said:
I will do that. I’m actually on your site right now commenting about why I blog. Love your, writing style, Robin.
That is way cool. I’ll check out your comment.
I think I completely agree with you. Now I will have to keep an eye on my own writing and see if I practice what you preach. And I claim to agree with.
I hope I don’t come off as too preachy! I’m no expert, but I learned so much while editing my manuscript. Hence, this series. Thanks for the follow!~
In my favorite book, (Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie) I don’t think I saw a ‘said’ once. He uses every other word under the sun and I found it very intriguing and not at all distracting;) He also has a way of giving his characters idiosyncrasies so they can carry on conversations through the entire book without him tagging who is talking, but you always know who it is.
I don’t mind reading a book where someone ‘shouts’ or ‘cries out in pain’ or ‘gasps’ as long as it’s a good story 😀
Maybe if the book we read was a good story I wouldn’t have cared about the “says.” Since I was mad about wasting my time reading it, the “says” was icing on the cake.
Yes – ‘says’ would be annoying and I totally see what you mean 😀
Maddie Cochere said:
Spelling – dialogue. You probably know I’m all over the map with tags. I already knew that “said” was an invisible word, and that your eyes would gloss over it, so I do use said often, but I like to use other words, too. I wrote this today: … “If you’re a cop, you’re not supposed to be drinking on the job,” I told him. I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from my voice. … “I said” is what I should have used, and I know that, but I didn’t, and I probably won’t. 🙂
How do you feel “told” sounds more sarcastic than “said?” I’m not trying to argue, I’m just curious.
Glad to know when you stand on “dialogue’s” spelling. “Dialog” looks naked to me.
In terms of all thing writing . . . it is a matter of personal preference for the writer as well as the reader. I’m betting there are lots of romance writers and readers who love, “he panted,” “she heaved,” and “he ejaculated.”
Maddie Cochere said:
“I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from my voice” was part of what I wrote in my story. I used the ‘told him’ instead of said just for something different. I went through and looked at some of the books in my library here at home. I think I like some variety in tags (love your samples, heehee), but I am trying to use said most often.
Oh, sorry . . . misread your line. I failed to mention in this post that Stephen King is a “said” advocate too. But, as I ‘said’ before, to each his own!
The Hook said:
Variety is the spice of life – and literature.
So I take it you disagree with sticking to ‘said?’
The Hook said:
That is correct.
Interesting. Mr. Leonard and Mr. King will be crushed to hear it. Their egos are so fragile.
hmmm i think i am guilty once more. mine occassionally whisper, protest, reply and argue it really depends what i am writing and what mood i am in but the second question is easy it is dialogue
Well . . . most say to stick with said. But what the heck. If you want to use ‘whisper,’ ‘protest,’ and ‘argue’ go for it!
How are you feeling?
not too bad although the monster just threw up over me – other half now on child comforting duties as I did automatically jump up to see to him before I realised I shouldn’t move that quickly. the said thing made me laugh actually as I remember back to being at school and having to remove every said and use a word to show the emotion of the speech, really in some ways it comes down to what is in favour at any given time, now we are encouraged to keep it simple and avoid the purple prose yet much of the literature which endures is that which today would never get published
Yikes . . . don’t move too fast! You made me cringe! Is the Monster okay now?
Writing “rules” are more like “guidelines.” You have to go with your heart.
I think of you often.
daddy and monster are curled up asleep on the sofa so I am laid here with full bed to myself am well drugged up and although I expect to be sore tomorrow am sure there will be no real damage done. have included pics of my stitches in tomorrows blog post for anyone who missed them on my fb but am healing nicely
Glad to hear it. Tomorrow makes day 10, right?
yup though tonight may be a long night
I read a bunch – and very quickly. With a good writer, it all flows and nothing interrupts the run to the end. Hadn’t thought about it before, but “said” is the little invisible workhorse – does the job but completely invisible. SOme books are irritating and I couldn’t figure out why – but it’s all the “saids” insisting on costumes that detract.
Great tool to be aware of. Thanks
Another great line! “Saids” insisting on costumes.” B.R.I.L.L.I.A.N.T.
“I’ve just started fooling with fiction writing and struggled with that dialogue tag in my first effort. I worried that said was too simple, but if you and Elmore don’t think so, that is all I need to hear”, Oma said.
Stephen King admonished, “Always use ‘said’ for dialogue tags.”
Lori DiNardi said:
You’ve got my thoughts overflowing on this one. Not sure where to begin. I got chastised once, by some very good authors, for using too many tags. Since then, I rarely use them. Instead, I use action tags. For example, – “This book-club book sucks!” Robin slammed the old-fashioned hard cover onto the table.
I like the use of an action tag. And I believe I did SLAM the darn book on the table. Geez Louise . . . it was bad.
“Tell it, girl,” Anne cheered. ; )
I use “says” a lot, because I often write in present tense. So I guess I’m abusing one of your words. But I use it like “said.” I try not to use too many dialogue tags, period, because there are less intrusive ways to let the reader know who’s talking, and I want to stay out of the way. Have you found lots of “saids” in your work? Or did you find “chortled”s, etc.?
In journalism training, anything other than “said” was evil, so my training has stuck. ; )
Hmmm . . . I looked into the ‘says’ vs. ‘said’ debate a little more and learned two things. Some say ‘says’ is acceptable as long as you are consistent and don’t hop between ‘says’ and ‘said.’ Also, ‘says’ is used more in journalism.
I had a few said-bookisms but I tossed them during draft 2. When I typed them, I thought I sounded cleaver. When I read them, they stuck out to me like road bumps.
Huh! I didn’t know that about “says” and journalism. Maybe that’s why it sounded so right to me.
And I use “says” consistently the whole way through. Staying present tense throughout allows the reader to be in the moment with the character. (Or using “said” consistently so you don’t bump the reader.)
Dennis Langley said:
First let me say that I missed your weak vs strong posts.
This is one area I consciously think about when I write. Whenever possible, I will not use tags. Especially, when only two characters are talking to each other. I think it makes for tighter “dialogue”. (There, I answered your last question too.) However, I tend to agree with jmmcdowel that “replied” is necessary at times. When I catch myself wanting to use a tag other than “said” or “replied”, I stop and ask myself, “Does this add something important to the dialogue?” If not, I scrap it.
Well thanks, Dennis. It was fun to do another strong vs weak post.
When tempted to use a dialogue (we are in the same dialogue/dialog camp) tag, I beefed up the words inside the quotations marks so the extra punch in the tag wasn’t needed/called for. ‘Replied’ and ‘asked’ seem to me to be kissing cousins of ‘said’ and don’t smack of overwriting.
Larry Beck said:
Like jmmcdowell I too think something a little stronger yet practical is required from time to time. When needed I use such words as “vowed” or “asserted”.
“I agree,” she asserted.
Thanks for weighing in!
Very, very occasionally I use a word other than ‘said’, but I feel that I can do that *because* it sticks out (i.e. ‘look at that! Jess usually just uses ‘said’, but now she’s using something else. That must be really important’). I’ve taught students, however, who have been taught that ‘said’ is boring and that they need to vary their dialogue by using such horrors as ‘prevaricated’.
The one I really hate is ‘ejaculated’, which has of course changed in usage over the years. This horrible word appears over and over again in the adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu. Did he? Did he *really*? In front of all those people?
Interesting . . . I like how you mix it up to make a piece of dialogue stand out.
If someone ‘ejaculates” a sentence, who the heck is going to clean it up? Eeew.
Well, quite. ‘Holy crap,’ she said as she entered the room. ‘What the hell kind of party *was* this?’
Tilly Bud - The Laughing Housewife said:
Your timing is perfect! I’ve been grappling with this during Nano. Never having written much dialogue, I was unsure.
Oh good! There is tons of information about the ‘said’ debate on the Internet. People have fiery opinions about it!
How is Nano going for you today. You cracked me up yesterday with the log of your progress.
Tilly Bud - The Laughing Housewife said:
Managed over 2000 words yesterday afternoon and 900 today. I knew I was going out today so I didn’t stress about it. Starting to like my characters 🙂
Yep, agreed. Said all the way, apart from whispered and shouted 🙂
“Thanks for stopping by,” she shouted!
Your post brings to mind a line from a novel… “Oh,” said Monte Cristo “it would be quite superfluous for you to tell me, for I already know it.” 🙂
That is a great line!
It is a great line – sounds like it was written by a cat.
Oh gosh . . . it certainly does!
Madame Weebles said:
I smiled as I read this. But I found it difficult to talk while smiling. So I smiled first, and then declared that your blog was a delight. Or maybe I gushed. Or raved. I can’t remember. It was one of those. And bless you for the shoutout and the kind thoughts!!!
How are you holding up? Still wet behind the ears?
Polly Robinson said:
heh-heh … you said it! 🙂
Ha ha! I hope I didn’t put my foot in my mouth while saying it!
You know it never fails that after I read one of your posts Robin I race back to review any writing I’m doing because I’m probably guilty of same. So I went to the draft of a book and was relieved to see the appropriately approved “saids” where they needed to be. I spent too many years writing nonfiction in business. I am guilty of breaking rules when writing creative fiction! Sigh! Thanks, Penny
Glad all your ‘saids’ were in order! I have a vision of you tearing open your manuscript and saying, “Ha! Didn’t get me this time, smarty-pants Robin!”
Wow you can see things at a distance too. I am so impressed! lol
I leap over tall buildings too.
You continue to impress!
I mostly use said without an adverb in my later drafts. But to me, overuse of the word can become as irritating to read as something by an author who obviously had the thesaurus handy for other descriptors.
But sometimes a stronger word is needed to show nuances that the dialogue can’t convey. And I’ll used “replied” when a character answers a question to avoid too many “saids.”
I try to avoid too many tags in general, but in my latest draft, some readers suggested a few more in areas where they weren’t sure who in the group was speaking.
Interesting. ‘Said’ disappears for me. But I can see how it could, as my mom would say, “stick out like a sore thumb” just like any other overused word.
My novel is not dialogue heavy. An early reader suggested more dialogue rather than telling what the person said. It was easy to change.
How close are you to finishing your novel?
Such a simple question—at first glance. 😉 I’ve got my beta comments back for Draft 3, and there are a couple of larger issues I need to resolve plus some smaller ones that shouldn’t be too bad. But I’m still trying to figure out how best to go after the bigger one. I’d love to have a really polished version done next year to either shop (if I can bring myself to try again) or e-publish myself.
When I see really talented writers with excellent stories getting nowhere with agents, I find myself leaning more to going indie. We’ll see.
The publishing world is a strange place right now. Or, maybe it has always been a strange place but it is undergoing rapid fire changes, as you know. I’m going to give the traditional route a go, and like you, if nothing happens, do indie.
Good luck with the final round of edits!
Le Clown said:
I will wait till my wife is back to explain to me what sneering means… Sometimes, it’s hard to be a native French speaker…
Mr. Wick E. Pedia sneers and says, “A sneer is a facial expression of scorn or disgust characterized by a slight raising of one corner of the upper lip, known also as curling the lip or turning up the nose.” That help?
Le Clown said:
Like, hellz yeah.
And THAT folks, is the extent of my French.
Carrie Rubin said:
Except for a few exceptions where a ‘he shouted’ or a ‘she whispered’ may be a better fit, I always stick with a plain old ‘said,’ and I rarely follow it with an adverb.
It is hard to convey a whisper inside the quotation marks so I think it is okay to say ‘she whispered.’ With shouting, you are right. Sometimes you need to shout it out loud.
Carrie Rubin said:
But as I said, these are kept to a minimum. To me, ‘he shouted’ sounds better than ‘he said boisterously.’
“I agree,” she says with a boisterous shout!
Said can sometimes drive you crazy though. In one of the Harry potter books, there is a page that drives me crazy because its a long line of short dialogue between characters where “said” practically smacks you in the face by the time you’ve finished. It feels like, he said, she said, he said she said. It’s the only place in all the books of hers that do that, so I’m not sure how it got by. Otherwise, said is fine. I usually use said, or just move on without it if possible. Great post.
As you mention, they say you can drop the “said”all together if you can tell who is saying what in that kind of dialog stream. I am surprised it flew under the radar too.
I like putting the dialogue tag is various places . . . the beginning, middle, and end . . . to break things up.
I completely agree!
“Amen, sister,” she chortled.
Ok so I happen to be a fan of chortling…
Nothing like a good chortle!
what worthless book was read in October? Dialogue or dialog? I have no preference but thanks for asking 🙂
I hate to name names. I considered putting the title of the book here, but thought better of it. I’ll email it to you.
Vanessa Chapman said:
Way back in school, when I was about 14 I guess, our English teacher taught us about using ‘said’. She said that when we read dialogue, if it says ‘said’ then we simply acknowledge who the person is doing the saying, but don’t notice the word ‘said’ itself. So as you say here Robin, it’s unobtrusive. I’ve always remembered it, and mostly stick to it, but occasionally I find myself throwing in the odd ‘gasped’ or ‘chuckled’ – they don’t survive the edit though!
I had one “She nodded.” How can someone nod a sentence?!? When I read dialogue tags other than said, I cringe. It makes my teeth hurt. Guess you know where I stand in the “said” debate!