Recently, Melissa Eskue Ousley wrote that one of her writing students insisted that said is dead. She disagrees. And I do too. Here's why:
There are a million synonyms for the word “said.” When tagging ordinary speech, you could replace said with stated, reported, or added. For angry speech, you could use hissed, fumed, or sneered. Or for sad speech, you could write cried, sobbed, or groaned. But the fact is crying isn’t speaking, although it can accompany speech. And those who are frightened, happy, or surprised don’t actually speak by quivering, giggling, or marveling.
But I also know you don’t want to keep repeating the word said whenever there’s an exchange of dialogue. Well, you don’t have to if you make use of your characters’ distinct personalities. Let their speech patterns reflect their particular level of education, class, temperament, idiosyncrasies, situation, or beliefs. Then you won’t need an attribution tag.
For example, in my historical mystery novel THE DEADLIEST HATE, Miriam bat Isaac is conversing with her brother, Binyamin the gladiator, in his cell beneath the arena. One of them says, “Let Albus show you out. My gapped-toothed friend here knows this maze better than anyone.” The situation itself makes it clear that Binyamin is the speaker. He’s the one locked in a cell so no one could show him out. Moreover, Miriam doesn’t know Albus, and even if she did, she’s too refined to ever refer to his gapped teeth.
Still, even when you do need an attribution tag, I’ll argue that the word said is still preferable. You’ve probably been taught to use the most precise word to depict an event. That is, you’ve been told, “Don’t use the word bird when you can specify a robin.” But the word said is an exception. It’s meant to become invisible as readers focus on the content of the remark while their eyes slide down the page.
So how can you show the way the words are spoken? Please, not by attaching an adverb like angrily, sadly, or happily, or worse yet, by adding the word “very” to intensify that adverb. That’s telling, not showing. Show the emotion with an accompanying gesture or description of the speaker’s tone of voice.
For example, “You are mean,” Sue said through trembling lips, her index finger stabbing the air with each word. By inserting a bit of action in the form of a gesture, your readers will be able to infer the emotion for themselves. Or, instead of a gesture, describe the speaker’s tone of voice. For example, change “Tom screamed” to “Tom said in a voice that sounded like the shriek of a wounded animal.”
So, if you ask me whether the word said is dead, I say, “No, not for me” and recommend that you rely on the individuality of your characters to preclude the need for an attribution tag. And when a tag is necessary, convey the manner in which the remark is spoken by either a gesture or description of the speaker’s tone. That way, you’ll be showing not telling.
About the Author:
June Trop and her twin sister Gail wrote their first story, “The Steam Shavel [sic],” when they were six years old growing up in rural New Jersey. They sold it to their brother Everett for two cents.
Now associate professor emerita at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she devotes her time to writing historical mysteries with a connection to early science. Her heroine, Miriam bat Isaac, is based on the personage of Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, who developed the concepts and apparatus alchemists and chemists would use for 1500 years.
June lives with her husband Paul Zuckerman in New Paltz, where she is breathlessly recording the story of her plucky heroine’s next life-or-death exploit.