Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Use "Said," Dammit, "Said!"

The parade keeps passing, and while it's been a year or so since I offered this bit of advice, it apparently hasn't sunk in. I read two books in manuscript form recently that both suffered from said-bookism and adverb-poisoning in the dialog. I won't repeat the post, but if you are a newbie fiction writer -- and I mean that in the sense that you a) either don't know what said-bookisms and adverb poisoning are, or b) have an idea but still use them in your prose, go here and read this, right now.

There are many ways to write, and much of what pros argue about runs to taste -- some folks like some spices, others don't -- but there are things that will mark you as somebody who doesn't know what s/he is doing in a manuscript and this is one of them. Unless you have a really good reason for using a word other than "said" in your attribution during dialog, put down that Thesaurus and DON'T DO IT, okay?


Anonymous said...

"Use "Said," Dammit, "Said!"

... Perry exclaimed.

Dan Moran said...

"I know exactly what you mean," Moran snickered.

Wierdly enough, Roger Zelazny was prone to it in his later works. His work got a little vague in later years anyway -- the gap in quality between his 60s/70s and his 80s work is pretty large.

One of the things that worries me as a writer -- happened to Heinlein even worse. Artists as a group are prone to diving into their navels, of running out of things to say and repeating themselves ...

The thing that perplexes me is that writers keep thinking they're doing work as good as their early work, when they're clearly not. I'm not clear what sort of mental paralysis causes this, but it's one of the few things that scares me.

Steve Perry said...

Guy goes to doctor, and the doctor says, "i've got bad news and worse news."

"Uh oh. Lay it on me, Doc."

"You have Alzheimer's and you have cancer."

Guy looks at him. After a few seconds, he says. "Well, at least I don't have Alzheimer's or cancer ..."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the timely reminder.

I just read a published (small press) short story that suffered from this. I'm also in the middle of writing a short story and I keep wanting to add "he whispered", "she called" and any number of adverbs after "said". I knew I wasn't supposed to do those things but I couldn't remember why and they keep sneaking into my writing.

Now I know why I need to go back and fix those. Like the old cartoon said, "Knowing is half the battle."

Steve Perry said...

Mendur --

There are places were you can sprinkle something in other than "said," especially if it goes to a specific action needed to give necessary information.

If two characters are watching a play or sitting in a church or temple or mosque or somewhere they shouldn't be talking, they can whisper. Using it once is enough to set the tone, followed maybe by something like, "she also kept her voice to a whisper." After that, the reader will assume they continue the conversation at a low volume until advised otherwise:

"What?!" Her outburst came out at full volume and then some. People turned around to stare.

"Keep your voice down!" he said.

And now and again, you can use an "he observed" or "she allowed" or somesuch. Mostly, "exclaimed," "questioned," "wondered," or "excitedly" are covered by punctuation -- that's what the ! and ? mean.

"Oh, shit!" Tom said.

That pretty conveys all you need.

"Oh, shit!" Tom exclaimed excitedly. is using a fire hose to try and fill a teacup.

We don't have to keep our prose as spare as Hemingway's all the time; however, Bulwer-Lytton isn't the solution ...