Have you read a book where the characters growled, mused, or grated everything? Did it annoy all hell out of you? It sure does me! I don’t go through my life applying such tags to the things people say to me day in and day out – I just process the vocal tone and body language to reach a conclusion about the nature of the interaction. 

If you’re a writer, you might pause to ponder if you’ve been guilty of this sin. I won’t wait for you to answer though because I already know you are guilty as charged. Every writer is.How do I know this?

Because it’s a beginner mistake.

We all do this in our early days. You might be thinking of some of your early work right now – you know, the ones you’ve buried in hopes they will never see the light of day again? If you’re looking at your current WIP and it’s littered with so-called ‘saidisms’, I strongly urge you to go through and delete all those nasties. Said is an excellent word. Said is an under-appreciated word. No matter how much you think you might be over-using it, you’re probably not. And if you actually are, there are better alternatives than ‘hissed’, ‘bellowed’ and ‘snarled’. Don’t even touch ‘grinned’. Trust me on this one. 

In the traditionally published world, this kind of writing will have you hit the rejection pile so fast your head is spinning. There are, of course, exceptions (see my post about Joe Abercrombie here). One is that occasionally contracted writers are allowed to get away with sloppy writing mistakes that newbie writers can’t – something I don’t agree with, but hey, I don’t make the rules. 

Even more occasionally, a debut writer will get away with this – I can only assume because their story is so compelling the errors were allowable. If you’ve been following my #writetip series, you may have seen the one that said great storytelling can sometimes make up for mediocre writing, and I can only assume this is the case here. 

In the self-publishing world, though, the only control is that applied by the writer. Some writers don’t know any better – they’re new, and they haven’t yet learned a lot of craft, and in that first stage of writing, that euphoric bliss of unconscious incompetence that is the first step of learning anything, they publish their work. Ignorance really is bliss. I even know a few writers who, once they learned a bit more craft, pulled their ebooks from distribution because the second stage of learning, conscious incompetence, isn’t nearly so kind to the ego. 

Other writers who know better are tempted into the sin, or ignore their editors, and so a few saidisms might slip through.

Last week – or was it the week before? I’ve been sick and dehydrated to the point of near-hallucinations, so I really can’t be sure. But in the space of 5 minutes I started and discarded three books. Why? Because of evil saidisms.

I can forgive a few creative alternatives to ‘said’. But if you have too many in the first few pages you are likely to annoy me to the point of putting your book down. And if yours is the third book in that list, I am even more likely to be unforgiving. Congratulations to R.S. Guthrie, whose Black Beast was the fourth book I tried that day, and which I have now read to the end.

Why do saidisms annoy me so much? If you’re a reader (and not a writer), they may not consciously annoy you, but it’s likely they have a negative effect on you, even if you can’t put your finger on it. And they annoy me for the same reason, it’s just that so many years of writing and an impossibly long list of workshops (check out my website if you haven’t seen all the workshops I’ve done) leave me in a position where I can articulate precisely why they annoy me. 

‘Said’ is invisible. The reader reads it, but they don’t consciously acknowledge it. They just skim past it. It’s primary function is to alert the reader to who is talking. When a writer gets creative with speaker tags, and uses something else, the reader will, perhaps not consciously, attempt to match the tag to the words. Do they sound like something that would be growled? Is it appropriate to shout that line? Can that sentence actually be hissed? Wait… it’s got no sibilants in it. How can you hiss that

And now you have a problem. The reader is paying more attention to matching dialogue to tags than your actual story.

Jack Bickham, in ‘The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes’, says 90% of your speaker tags should be ‘said’. No, that doesn’t mean 90% of your dialogue should use ‘said’. What it means is that, where you use tags, 90% of them should be ‘said’. There are, of course, other alternatives to speaker tags, such as no tag (where not needed) or an action tag, where the writer describes what a character is doing. This helps to give context to the dialogue and avoid the ‘talking heads’ problem. 

In short, using alternatives to said is distracting. It can jolt the reader out of the story. For reasons you can’t precisely identify, you may not feel as deeply involved in the story as you’d like. Sound familiar? Ever experienced that problem? I bet everyone has, at least once, even if you couldn’t say what it was you didn’t like about the book. 

Dialogue should speak for itself. We should understand the likely tone from the words themselves, and this extends to adding adverbs after said – there is no need to say ‘I’m sorry’ apologetically. We already see it’s apologetic from the words. And for god’s sake, words cannot be grimaced or grinned as in ‘I know,’ he grimaced. ‘Grimaced’ in this sentence is necessarily a modifier of the spoken words, which just doesn’t make sense. The correct structure would be ‘I know.’ He grimaced. The exception is arguably things like ‘whispered’ and ‘shouted’ where the reader can’t actually gauge the tone from the words. And, of course, ‘lied’, but don’t ever use this for a non-viewpoint character or you’ll be head-hopping (unless you are using omniscient third). 

In the spirit of fun, here’s a poem by Franklin P. Adams. He wrote this poem using the attribution tags he found in two stories in a single magazine.

Monotonous Variety

She “greeted” and he “volunteered”;
She “giggled”: he “asserted”;
She “queried” and he “lightly veered”;
She “drawled” and he “averted”;
She “scoffed,” she “laughed” and he “averred”;
He “mumbled,” “parried,” and “demurred.”

She “languidly responded”; he
“Incautiously assented”;
Doretta “proffered lazily”;
Will “speedily invented”;
She “parried,” “whispered,” “bade,” and “mused”;
He “urged,” “acknowledged,” and “refused.”

She “softly added”; “she alleged”;
He “consciously invited”;
She “then corrected”; William “hedged”;
She “prettily recited”;
She “nodded” “stormed,” and “acquiesced”;
He “promised,” “hastened,” and “confessed.”

Doretta “chided”; “cautioned” Will;
She “voiced” and he “defended”;
She “vouchsafed”; he “continued still”;
She “sneered” and he “amended”;
She “smiled,” she “twitted,” and she “dared”
He “scorned,” “exclaimed,” “pronounced,” and “flared.”

He “waived,” “believed,” “explained,” and “tried”;
“Commented” she; he “muttered”;
She “blushed,” she “dimpled,” and she “sighed”;
He ‘ventured” and he “stuttered”;
She “spoke,” “suggested,” and “pursued”;
He “pleaded,” “pouted,” “called,” and “viewed.”

O syonymble writers, ye
Whose work is so high-pricey.
Think ye not that variety
May haply be too spicy?
Meseems that in an elder day
They had a thing or two to–say.
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