Thursday, December 3, 2015

Should You Use The Word 'Said' When Writing Dialogue?

“Teachers! Please Do Not Make Your Students Use Synonyms for Said,” I Blurted, is the name of this very true article by Gabriel Roth I just read. I say it's true because my twins are also in 4th grade and they have also been told to avoid using the word 'said' after quoting speech in dialogue. In fact, there seems to be a movement toward alienating the word 'said'. My feelings are mixed. I think that just like with anything else in life, a middle ground usually works best.

I struggle with this attempt to exile the word 'said' from being used in writing dialogue. I have even had arguments with my children about it because I’m contradicting their teachers. 

I understand that the reasoning is that repetitively using the word 'said' can be monotonous and lack creativity, and often can even be a lost opportunity to show the reader more. However, for all of the good reasons teachers are beseeching children to learn to use expletives and verbs, such as ‘snarled, professed, argued, remarked, cried, ect.,' sometimes it just becomes too much. I think that perhaps the teaching focus should be on when to offer more, and finding the right balance.

In my opinion, using the word less is a good technique to be encouraged. I however, disagree that the word said should be avoided at all costs. I believe that there should be a balance between its usage and using expressive terms to add to the dialogue when it makes sense, when they are necessary, and when they actually add value. 

Otherwise, we end up with a dialogue plagued with descriptive words after each statement that are distracting to the reader, jolting them out of the conversation and giving them too much work to keep up with all that is being presented to them. Sometimes there is such thing as too much, and it makes for just plain bad writing. 

I think that the balance is a skill to be acquired, and teachers should encourage the creativity of choosing appropriate words to replace the ‘said’, but not implore them to do so all the time. We don't need to exile the poor word to the lost land of the “Words to Not Use List.”

Sometimes, good dialogue doesn't even need anything after the quote, especially if there are only two people speaking. When your characters are well formed, and their speech patterns are clearly distinguishable from each other, and they have reasons for saying what they would say, you don't have to add anything after that quote. Your reader will know who said what. You can still add occasional descriptives like 'she said' here and there, or even something like, 'he said, as he searched her expressions for a sign that she was being disingenuous,' before continuing the dialogue. The later example not only tells you who said the statement, but also what he is doing as he speaks, and more importantly, lets the reader know that what the speaker is thinking without saying it... which goes a long way for those of us who repeatedly encourage authors to show instead of telling. 

I would therefore say that finding the balance between using the word 'said' versus other descriptives, or even nothing at all, is the key to good writing. So work on that! 

Happy Writing!

Click here and read the Article by Gabriel Roth

Gabriel Roth is a Slate senior editor and the editorial director of Slate Plus. Follow him on Twitter

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