The Great “Said” Debate

I never would have known there was much conversation about this if I hadn’t gone to the writer’s festival. I remember taking a correspondence course years ago, where my mentor sent me one of the many articles about using said and only said – where necessary.

The article mentioned Tom Swifties and how many times an author can unintentionally cause humor through the use of some of those phrases. Even in occurrences where the author is giving more information about how the speech is, it can be at best distracting to always have another word about how something pops out of a character’s mouth.

I know in my writing group when the subject comes up, one of the guys always begins a spiel about beats and tags. He starts with how saying “she said” or anything along those lines is a tag, while something like “She sipped from her coffee mug.” would be a beat. In both instances, assuming proper paragraphing, the reader instantly knows who’s speaking.

However, one of our lecture series speakers took the opposite side and for the first time let me see the debate behind the word said. She spoke at length on how much more detail can be added when you use descriptive words like whisper and murmur and exclaimed. I might be skeptical, but I still took notes.

She had a lot of interesting things to say about details and how to describe. Her points also included how to give depth to your work and gave us reasons to think about being clear through our words. It’s not a choice to just be clear or be deep. Every word a writer puts down on paper draws a different story; some are neither clear nor deep. Others might be both.

Back to the dialogue question, said is an invisible word to readers, meaning we pretty much gloss over it. It’s enough to tell me that it’s Nickolas speaking instead of Henrietta or Fred. Maybe style is what’s going to give us more detail at that moment.

Example: From “Qui’s Contract” in Ruins Metropolis. At this point the main character finds a small group of lost people who are speaking among themselves. POV is 3rd person attached/limited, so I would not be able to get into the head of the speaker.

A. “This isn’t on the map,” said the woman. “We must’ve gotten off-course avoiding the sandstorm.”

B. “This isn’t on the map,” murmured the woman. “We must’ve gotten off-course avoiding the sandstorm.”

C. “This isn’t on the map,” murmured the dark-skinned woman, clearly in charge of navigation. “We must’ve gotten off-course avoiding the sandstorm.”

D. “This isn’t on the map.” A map dangled loosely from the woman’s hand. “We must’ve gotten off-course avoiding the sandstorm.”

Example A is as published in the short story. I gave it a tag to identify the speaker and keep the conversation moving. For Examples B and C, I tried murmured instead to give an idea of what she was saying. I prefer said. It does say earlier the main character doesn’t know whether or not the group knows she can hear them. In Example D I show a beat, where you know [especially if I tell you there was only one woman in the group of lost humans] who is speaking without using a said – or whatever other word – tag. Perhaps someone else could argue for a tag where she proclaimed it or she declared it. I don’t remember a time I used a tag other than said or a beat to identify my speakers in stories.

At that point the argument could expand to figure out whether the strength of the words alone is enough, or if I have to add more narrative to make the reader figure that out. In my mind, if I use the words themselves to make a character real, that’s showing who that character is and how s/he reacts. If I need to add that much description to how it was said to convey my meaning, I’m telling you how it happened.

I like to try to choose words in the dialogue that make me feel the character is really speaking. Sometimes I have trouble creating distinctive speaking voices for each character, but that’s one thing I work on in rewrites. Mostly I use said, even when a character asks a question.

Where do you fall with the word said? Are you the type to let the invisible word do its job? Or is there another way to look at the reasons behind using the other words?

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