Last week, we talked about the dangers of having a thesaurus around when you are writing. Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most common things a thesaurus will do: kill “said.”
Some people actually celebrate that. They put up posters that say things like “Said is Dead” and list other dialogue tags that you should replace it with. There are lots of different choices. Things like “remarked,” “begged,” “boomed,” “smirked,” and “cried.” So why would you use a word like “said”?
Because “said” is better.
Sure, there’s a place for some of those dialogue tags. But they draw attention to themselves, off of the actual dialogue. I’ve read books written by people who apparently had one of those posters hanging above their monitor. Every single dialogue tag was something different that was intended to be more expressive. However, it meant I was spending more time reading the dialogue tags than the dialogue. My focus moved from the action to the narration. Even worse, in pursuing variety and emotion, you can actually make your book boring and flat. If you’re writing your dialogue correctly, you will convey emotions through what the characters say. The dialogue tags distract from that and make it redundant.
Sure, “Said is Dead,” but that’s a good thing. Dead words don’t draw attention to themselves. “Said” is a placeholder word. That means you can use it over and over again. It’s like “the” in one of those puzzles where you miss the fact that the “the” is repeated. Until someone points it out to you, you don’t even realize it’s there.
Unless you think that there is actual confusion about the speaker’s emotion, “said” conveys plenty. It doesn’t tell you how a person feels, but it shouldn’t need to. If there’s actual confusion about your characters’ emotions, you should fix the dialogue, not the tag.
You can certainly use other dialogue tags when it’s appropriate. When you’re writing, sometimes you need to specify things like “whispered” or “yelled.” But that’s a change that you make in context, not simply to get rid of the word “said.”
The worst case is when it’s replaced with a word like “smirked.” Do you know anyone who smirks words? I’d like to meet them. Sure, it conveys the expression, but that’s not a dialogue tag anymore. If you throw a word like that in every time you use the word said, your reader is going to get bored, because they are reading your dialogue tags, not your dialogue.
“Said” is a boring word if you’re looking for it. But it’s a word that you won’t see unless you look. Replacing it with more exciting words will kill your dialogue and make your characters boring instead.