Let me take you back to elementary school. Junior high or middle school, maybe. Going back a ways for some of us, I know. Just when we were getting started in writing, putting words together in ways that made sense, our teachers told us something that was meant to help us.
“Said is dead.”
All you have to do is look at some of the more laughably horrendous works of fan fiction out there, such as “My Immortal” or “Half-Life Full Life Consequences”, to see why our instructors tried to get us hating “said.” If you use it all the time in your dialog, it becomes repetitive. Boring. You could be relaying the blow-by-blow proceedings of an intense debate on the existence of God and the potential place of a deity in the theory of evolution, but if you use ‘said’ the way you use periods to punctuate the back-and-forth it’ll be about as exciting as waiting for the bus.
As an alternative to said, we were encouraged to use alternatives found in a thesaurus. Lists like this one popped up all over the place, pounding into us the notion of said being dead. This worked to take writing out of the pure beginner stages and help define the characters as they spoke. At worst, we just swapped said for a different word. At best, he used the different verbs to inform other actions in the plot and keep it moving. Nothing wrong with that, other than the fact it doesn’t go quite far enough.
Think about conversations you’ve had. It’s very rare to sit across from someone or stand next to them while nothing else is happening but talking. Are you looking out the window? Twirling a pen? Loading a gun? Are they? These actions convey emotion — restlessness, anger, thoughtfulness, etc. — much better than any replacement for “said”. Not only do writing these actions out as a preface to a line of dialog communicate which character is speaking, they also say something about that character in a way that shows, rather than tells. Win/win.
Of course, too many actions may clutter up the flow of the dialog. Sometimes you just need to say who’s talking. And for that purpose, “said” works just fine.
But just because said lives doesn’t mean you can’t kill it dead.
Our teachers had a point. The overuse of “said” will destroy your work. Even only using it a few times in the same exchange can put the attention of your reader in jeopardy. Think of “said” as a bit of duct tape keeping the flow and coherence of the dialog together until you reach the next action, or an instance of a character actually addressing the person to whom their speaking directly. People do that for emphasis, or to indicate another party present. As strong as duct tape is, if you use too much of it to patch your dialog together, chances are you’re doing something wrong.
Think about the flow of conversation. Weave actions into it to keep the direction clear, the energy high. Use said as sparingly as possible, and find ways to avoid using it if you already have once or twice. Step back from the dialog, turn it upside down, see what shakes loose and patch it up so it holds together. In other words, don’t just tell us about it — write it.
Our characters, after all, are not just what they say or what they feel. They are what they do. But that, I feel, is a subject for another post. For now, let it be known throughout the land and shouted from the rooftops — said LIVES!