He said, “said.”

Every once in a while you see advice for writers to lay off using the word “said” so much. When you read work by people who take this advice seriously, it shows. Characters who “exclaim” and “counter” and “blurt” when really all they’re doing is saying something is the mark of a writer who has forgotten their own experience reading. “The masters don’t use ‘said’ all the time,” I have heard people say.

Yes, they do. All the time. You just don’t see it. Good writers use those alternatives the way that quiet people use profanity. They are words for when you want to be noticed.

When I write (notice how by inference I am defining myself as a good writer — pretty sly, huh?), I use ‘said’ to resolve ambiguity about the speaker and to provide phrasing clues, to put in a narrative pause where the speaker is taking a breath. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘said’ is not a word, but punctuation. I postulate here that in the cognition of written language, that ‘said’ is managed by some sort of pre-processor, an arrow pointing to the character speaking, and by the time the text reaches the active story-enjoyment centers of the brain, the word is gone, in its place is an understanding of the voice of the speaker. The times I most notice ‘said’ is when it’s missing and I’ve lost track of who is speaking.

Still, I often find myself using a similar crutch. I will supply business to change the reader’s focus to the correct speaker:

Beth fiddled with her glasses. “That’s weird.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah.
Ed picked his nose. “You guys are just paranoid.”

Business can be useful, if it enhances characterization. If it’s just to replace “said”, it’s just a bad as

“That’s weird,” Beth mumbled.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed.
“You guys are just paranoid,” Ed whined.

A special subset of the ‘don’t use said’ crowd is the ‘never use the same word for a verbal utterance twice’ bunch. This can lead to some truly comic writing. (In fact, that gives me an idea… stay tuned. You and we and all of us, we have a project.) Generally I use the “business trick” when I want to name the reader before the spoken words, which can be helpful. For some reason I resist the form “Beth said, ‘That’s weird.'” and so forth. Part of my prejudice I’ll defend on timing grounds; I generally use the device when I want to slow the pace of the conversation. Still, there’s a limit, so the advice here about the invisibility of ‘said’ is directed toward myself as much as toward anyone else.

Meanwhile, what a great sentence: “‘Yeah,’ Joe agreed.” As if ‘yeah’ could have any other meaning. What the heck, why stop there?

Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he concurred agreeably.

So what can we conclude? Ed will be second or third to fall to the Kabin Killer, allowing him screen time enough to really annoy us before we cheer his downfall. Beth will last a little longer; she will almost escape but will lose her glasses at the critical moment, the only point in the film where there is any doubt about the outcome. Finally Joe will be the one to discover the killer’s weakness but too late to save himself. His demise will be heroic, as he leaves the critical clue for the others to find. He will be the last male to die. That’s what a few well-placed nuances in the dialog will do for you.

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