Wednesday, February 10, 2016

There's Nothing Wrong With "Said"

I have written a lot of prose over my career as an author. Some of it has appeared on my Amazon author page, but a lot of it hasn't. I've also been an avid reader for most of my life. In that time, I've thought about a lot of issues. The nature of fear, and what makes effective horror is one that I've probably killed brain cells over. Another question I've pondered is why school settings are so hugely popular for so many stories, and why books geared toward a younger reading audience are consistently picked up by older readers. And, as you could guess by the title, I've clocked a lot of hours on the issue of the word "said," particularly as it relates to identification in dialogue.

Say what now?
Said is one of those words that's going to appear a lot in your work, unless you're Cormac McCarthy, and you possess the ability to write an entire novel about a lone man with no name being alone with his own thoughts. Said is a perfectly functional word, it gets the point across, and it is (dare I say it?) a traditional part of novel writing. However, one of the first things practically any writer does when trying to spice up a manuscript is to replace said with a bunch of other words.

The great sage and eminent junkie Stephen King and I agree... don't do this.

Grated, Growled, Muttered, and Mumbled

A pattern I've noted in a lot of books is that authors will replace said with other words that are more indicative of how a character is talking. Grizzled police detectives will growl questions at suspects, and uncertain students will stammer or mumble when they talk. And there's nothing inherently wrong with this, just as there's nothing inherently wrong with using an adverb every now and again. Like I said in Blithely Digging Your Grave With Adverbs, though, when the numbers pile up it becomes a problem.

Much like zombies, now that I'm thinking about it.
When you're writing dialogue, it should be clear in the words you're choosing, and how the sentences are constructed, how a person sounds. For example, you shouldn't need to tell us that the lug who just took a kick to the nuts is groaning his dialogue; the reader should be able to infer that. If you've mentioned that the hitman with a scar across his throat from where someone tried to kill him has a rough, gravelly voice, you don't need to say that he "grated" out every word of his dialogue.

As with adverbs, you should save these for special occasions. When you first introduce a character, use something other than "said" to give us a sense of their voice, if you really want to. Or if something has happened that changes a character's voice (like how someone weak with hunger and thirst might only be able to whisper), mention it once to give the audience a clear image of what they should be hearing.

But don't use your substitute every time a character speaks. Seriously, it's habit forming, and the last thing we need is another novel out there with a manly ex-soldier who grumbles and snarls everything, or a teenage lead who spends the entire book muttering and mumbling instead of actually speaking to the other members of the cast.

That's it for this week's writing tips. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you'd like to help keep The Literary Mercenary up and running, consider stopping by my Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month to keep content coming right to your screen. Also, if you want to make sure you stay on top of all my posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter too.

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