The Importance of “Said”

Part of being A Very Serious Writer involves reading. A ton. Reading anything I can get my hands on, voraciously, distractedly, constantly. Writing can’t operate in a vacuum, and words are meant to be read. Consuming the written word makes you a better writer the way eating tons of fast food makes you fat: the language sticks to you and fills you up and gives your brain something to pull from. That’s deep, yo. ARE YOU LISTENING, NEW YORK TIMES?

I recently came across the repeated insistence of other writers to stop using said bookisms. You know, those words you substitute for “said” after a line of dialogue, and I’m going to pretend I knew that’s what they were called all along. They look like this: “Watch out!” Mary screamed. “I love you,” proclaimed Alex. “I’m waiting in the basement to watch you while you sleep,” giggled the man who lives in my basement and watches me while I sleep. Those. Anytime you use a word other than “said,” it momentarily jars the reader’s brain, pulling them ever-so-slightly out of the moment in the story. Stephen King brings it up in his book “On Writing,” that “said” is always the best choice because of its invisibility. If the dialogue is written well enough, you don’t need to tell the reader that a character yelled or was crying or avoiding something. You can add a qualifying descriptor after the word “said,” if you have to. “I love you,” Alex said quietly. “I love you,” Alex said sarcastically. Alex is kind of a dick, what can I say.

And that was your little writing lesson for today. Any examples from something you’re reading right now? I’m almost finished “Gone Girl” (I started it on Tuesday) and while I’m not reading it for its great literary value, it’s definitely engrossing.

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November 29, 2012 / read / watch / LEAVE A COMMENT / 27

27 comments

  • I used to work with someone who thought it was terribly clever/funny to pepper her anecdotes with “says I”. :/

    • Ooof, that’s brutal. Was she serious or being cutesy? I take for granted my capability with the language, I guess!

  • I have actually never thought of this but I think Mr. S. King may be correct. Very interesting.

    • I hadn’t really thought about it either, but I was reading last night and realized my mind just skips over the “he said” “she said” parts between dialogue, like they weren’t even there! I guess it’s true after all, about “said”s invisibility.

  • But what if someone is screaming or shouting? then it doesn’t work surely? She said loudly!?
    But having had an ex-boyfriend who is a writer I understand that Stephen King’s book is God. But current squeeze thinks George Orwell’s Why I write is. You MUST read that essay duckie if you haven’t already. But you have to read it with a plum in your mouth.

    I love Margaret Atwood. It’s rare to find books where women’s relationship with other women are the storylines rather than love stories or thrillers. She writes simply but beautifully.

    • I’m sure there are exceptions for things like “yelled” or “shouted,” but the point was to stop having things read like you made out with a thesaurus. “Exclaimed” or “announced” or “proclaimed” are horrid. Avoid avoid avoid.

      You’ve recommended Margaret Atwood to me so many times now that I have no excuse to not pick one up. Which book should I start with?

  • The books I am reading right now are well, I’m almost too embarrassed to tell you about them. Deep in Nantucket fiction (sue me) and as soon as I finish this latest one, I’m headed straight to my annual between Thanksgiving and Christmas read. All the Brits will probably make fun of me, but it’s Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. Pure comfort food. There, I *said* it. I’m allowed to be maudlin at the holidays.

    And I agree with Mr. King. Mixing it up is good, but much other than “said” unless other words really apply always smacks of trying too hard.

    • Totally smacks of trying to hard. I know they always say “rules are meant to be broken” but if it comes at the cost of annoying your reader, what’s the point? Said works best, always. But now I want to know what beach-y books you’re reading! No shame, we’re all friends here! :)

  • Do you know ‘The seas’ by Samantha Hunt? It’s such a beautiful book – one of my favorites – and it uses language in quite a innovative way. It’s a definitive must-read!

    xoxo, Femke
    By Button

    • I haven’t read that book, Femke, but thank you for the recommendation! I’ll look into it, I’m always buying books and stacking them on my night table :)

  • I love Stephen King!! I’m not a writer, but I definitely notice this when I’m relaying a conversation from my day, I never know how to eloquently says things besides “then he said” and ‘then he was like”. Awful!

    • Or “then she goes…” But I agree, “he was like…” is the worst!

    • It’s sooo hard in conversation to not use “he was like,” I do it ALL the time! I’ve been trying to curb myself when I start to say it, but it’s a hard one to break. Imagine using “he was like” in a book, though. Yuck!

  • “She said sarcastically.”…….Stop talking about me!

    • Haha. To be fair, you missed a really great opportunity to drop a “That’s what she said!” joke in here! xo

  • I have heard that these bookisms are good! But, now you have totally changed my mind. I can completely agree with where Stephen King is coming from, and something like ““I love you,” Alex said quietly.” does read so much stronger!

    • Haha, I don’t want to strong-arm anyone into an opinion, and there are definite times when bookisms can be helpful! But “he hissed” and “she snarled” and “she lamented” are cringe-worthy for me!

  • Hmm, so which are YOU for?

    • Haha, I’m totally anti-bookisms, I think. I’m sure when I go re-read what I’ve written so far for my own book there will be some slip-up in there. But I was reading a book last night and noticed that my brain skipped over “he said” every time it came up. Like it wasn’t even there!

  • Oh, is this kind of post going to be a regular thing because I rather like it. I’m a real big grammar and writing nerd, even though I wouldn’t proclaim myself “good” at either. I just love knowing all the rules and terminology.
    I’m currently reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Let me find one example and see how Didion handles:
    “V-fibbing,” John’s cardiologist said the next morning when he called from Nantucket. “They would have said ‘V-fibbing.’ V for ventricular.”
    “Said” followed by qualifying descriptor.
    I love this class!
    PS~I didn’t l.o.v.e. Gone Girl. Let me know what you think when you’re done.

    • What a great example!! It wouldn’t have been the same if it was written, “V-fibbing,” John’s cardiologist announced the next morning. Not the same punch! I do love me some qualifying descriptors :) If i can think of any other “rules” about writing or find more in my research I’ll do some more posts on it! I’m a big writer/grammer nerd, too, obviously, haha. I’m glad someone else enjoyed it!

      I finished Gone Girl last night. I’m not sure what to think! The first half was incredible, but by the end it was all War of the Roses and the ending made me feel actually uncomfortable! What were your thoughts on it??

  • good for you! so that book isn’t very good?

    • I wouldn’t say it’s no good, it’s definitely really interesting! You can read it quickly, that’s for sure.

  • “i’m not sure how the hell i missed this post yesterday,” said sue in a rather disapproving voice.
    like theresa said, hope this kinda post is gonna be a real regular thing, loved it ;)

    • “Ha! Perfect example, Sue!!” said Erin gratefully. ;) I’ll try to make this a regular thing, but I’m not sure how good a teacher I am honestly. xoxo

  • Very good literary tip and one I would do well to remember

    • , she mused. ;)