Oct 28 2008

Don’t Overuse Exotic Substitutes for “Said”

Beginning authors tend to overuse “said bookisms,” which are words used to replace the word “said.”  For example, in the sentence “I’m ready!” he declared, declared is a said-bookism.

 

Using more than a few said-bookisms per page will probably make the dialogue feel melodramatic and stilted (“I’m hungry,” he uttered). Some common said-bookisms are potentially distracting because they aren’t actually a way to speak.  For example, “I knew you’d come back,” she smiled lazily conflates two actions: the speaking and the smiling.   No, she didn’t smile those words.  It would be clearer and probably more publisher-friendly to change the phrase to “she said with a smile” or give the two actions their own sentences.

 

Additionally, animal-sounds are unusually annoying.  It doesn’t take much of him clucking and her purring to sound absolutely ridiculous.

Examples of Incorrect Said-Bookisms. These aren’t actually ways to speak.

  • laughed
  • chuckled
  • smirked
  • smiled
  • scowled
  • wept
  • sneezed
  • sneered

 

More Potentially Hazardous Said-Bookisms.

  • berated–it should be obvious when a character is berating someone, so this is usually unnecessary.
  • cursed– this is only stilted as a tag.  “Damn!” he cursed sounds silly but “He cursed” does not.
  • insulted–this should be obvious.
  • thanked–this will usually be obvious.  But if it’s not, I think it could be useful.
  • stated–Only use “stated” if the person is actually speaking with deliberative certainty.  “This man was murdered,” the coroner stated is much more natural than “I’d like a pizza,” Dan stated.
  • ejaculated–I haven’t seen this one in print since Arthur Conan Doyle, but it’s out there.
  • responded, possibly (“replied” usually fits more naturally)
  • retorted (try “replied” or “countered”)
  • uttered
  • acknowledged–in most cases, I’d recommend “admitted.”

 

Said-Bookisms That Are Usually Safe

  • asked
  • lied
  • admitted
  • snapped
  • declared
  • accused
  • replied (even though it should be obvious)
  • exclaimed
  • roared
  • yelled
  • speculated
  • mused
  • demanded
  • whispered
  • asserted
  • countered
  • cut in
  • hissed (this sticks out a lot, though… use it very sparingly)
  • barked (this also sticks out)

 

A lot of these are most effective when they provide additional information to the reader.  For example, “I love you,” he lied tells us something that “I love you,” he said doesn’t.   “Accused” and “admitted” can also add meaning.  For example, if the sentence is “you study three hours a day,” it will mean something very different if it is ended with “he accused” rather than “he said.”

 

Likewise, compare “said” to “admitted” or “boasted” here.

“How much did you bench?” asked the first Marine.  “Three hundred,” admitted the second.

“How much did you bench?” asked the first author. “One thirty,” boasted B. Mac.

29 responses so far

29 Responses to “Don’t Overuse Exotic Substitutes for “Said””

  1. stella tellson 30 Apr 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Bwah! This was a very funny article that I found most helpful. Thanks!

  2. Marissaon 30 Apr 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I understand the ‘hesitated’ and ‘paused’, but I’d be surprised if I could find a human being who couldn’t laugh a short sentence.

  3. Wingson 30 Apr 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Well, I can’t even do one push up. Yes, I am an athletic failure.

    – Wings

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 30 Apr 2009 at 9:12 pm

    I fail athletics forever. The most exercise I ever do is getting up to eat another cookie. 😀

  5. Yogion 30 Apr 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Characters of Twilight hiss a lot. I could never visualize hissing a word. You’d think they’re more like snakes than Meyerpires. (no, they aren’t vampires. I refuse to believe so)

  6. Marissaon 01 May 2009 at 12:31 am

    Really? I can totally visualize hissing a word. Not as often as they do it, but… still.

  7. trekfanon 13 Jul 2009 at 10:24 pm

    I can admit, this a problem for me. Luckily, I can correct it over the course of a few hours so no biggie, but man I really did abuse “smiled, smirked, grinned, ect”.

    I am a use of exotic substitutions for “said.”

    They say admittance is the first step. 🙂

  8. brukaoruon 19 Aug 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Oh wow, I just realized that this is a definite issue with my writing. Great article! Thank you so much!

  9. B. Macon 19 Aug 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Glad to help.

  10. HUsheron 20 Aug 2009 at 3:54 am

    I saw a ‘he ejaculated’ once. I was in a very childish mood, and for a moment I lay there and giggled before struggling to return to the book. I mean, it’s a fairer usage, because the book in question was a Jane Austen, and as I’m sure you know, it had quite a different meaning then, but still…

  11. Luna Jamniaon 20 Aug 2009 at 8:23 am

    I guess this is definitely an issue for me as well, just because I hate putting ‘said’ so many dang times.

    Hiss? I’ve used that-though not often-and ‘roar’ too … of course when I write ‘he roared’ or whatever, I usually think of Vin Diesel’s voice in Chronicles of Riddick. I’m pretty sure he did ‘roar’ a few times.

  12. B. Macon 20 Aug 2009 at 9:26 am

    If you’re not fond of repeating “said,” oftentimes you can just cut out the tag entirely– particularly if it’s clear who’s saying what without the tag.

    For example…

    “I’ve had quite enough of your limey antics. Britishenanigans,” said Character 1.

    “You’re barking mad,” said Character 2.

    “Don’t talk to me about madness. You drink tea!”

    Assuming that the readers already know that Character 1 is a slightly loony American and that Character 2 is British, you could probably just cut out all of the tags here.

  13. Luna Jamniaon 21 Aug 2009 at 8:37 am

    Thanks.

  14. Lighting Manon 21 Aug 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Until I broke my older brother’s ankle during a horrible falling-on-someone type game, it was always his dream to become a pilot for the military, and during one of his many conversations with my dead grandpa, who wasn’t dead at the time, My Father’s Father McDeadmanic suggested that he read memoirs by Air Force veterans, which he took to heart. He probably read two dozen within the first year, but there was one that he really, really loved, and for the life of me, I can’t remember the name or title, but he forced me to read it at one point and I swear to goodness, these people spent more time barking then most dogs. It wasn’t just during wartime, either, at one point, the Best Man at the guy’s wedding barked, and this was before he joined the Air Force.

    I always wondered if it was some sort of sly political commentary on the business of war, as in “If you shoot individuals of a slightly different faction for money, you’ll get fleas and forget how to talk like a people.” but then I remember that it was a soldier that wrote it, and I wonder if there was some small print in the back of the book that said “Dictated through barking but not read by Fluffy Talbot.”

  15. Ghoston 27 Aug 2009 at 3:08 pm

    i usually just cut the tags out after I establish the flow of the conversation. Or sometimes I’ll insert sentences of what the characters are doing while they are talking.
    “I don’t know…” Sarah absently twirled her gum around her finger, “I guess I never really thought about it much.”

  16. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 28 Aug 2009 at 2:00 am

    “I avoid them like the plague. Looking over some of my recent writing, I only see the following:

    asked
    admitted
    snapped
    exclaimed
    yelled
    whispered
    cut in”

    I use all those, plus these:

    chimed in
    interrupted
    cried
    blurted out (insert name here)
    murmured
    mumbled
    hissed (only when there is an S involved. Haha.)
    snapped
    screeched
    demanded

  17. Swapnil Siddharthon 15 Oct 2009 at 9:54 pm

    These are really important, because ‘said’ is becoming too common to use.

  18. jdon 16 Dec 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Actually, JK Rowling used “ejaculated” at least once. It was quite amusing.

  19. PaintedSainton 16 Dec 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used ejaculated many times in his books, in a time much more simpler…

    “Come, Watson!” Sherlock ejaculated.

    I can’t remember which book in the series this one came from, but I nearly died laughing. Yay for homoeroticism… 😀

  20. C.M.on 12 May 2010 at 3:04 pm

    I’ve been getting sick of spamming the word “said.” I’m not very far into my book yet, so cutting tags entirely is very situational right now. This article is very helpful, thanks. 🙂

  21. Peggyon 24 Jun 2010 at 9:42 am

    I think as sick as authors get of writing the word “said” we have to remember that readers barely notice it. Unless all of your writing is of unvaried Dick and Jane length you can use “said” 90% of the time and not have it sound tedious. It will not even register to the reader.

  22. Cuddleson 19 Jun 2011 at 9:25 am

    I’ve used “added” on a few occasions. Is that one safe?

  23. Contra Gloveon 19 Jun 2011 at 9:47 am

    I’ve used “added” on a few occasions. Is that one safe?

    I don’t see a problem with it.

  24. B. Macon 19 Jun 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I’m okay with added, although there probably wouldn’t be many scenarios where it would add something “said” doesn’t.

  25. Kylieon 18 Jun 2012 at 11:02 pm

    What about scoffed.

    As in ‘

    ‘You’re hopeless at football,’ he scoffed.

  26. Whomeveron 06 May 2013 at 10:45 pm

    i once read a story that used “britished” as a synonymn for said, in the context “God save the queen!” he britished.
    im going to use “sneezed” now, thats funny

  27. B. McKenzieon 06 May 2013 at 10:55 pm

    “‘You’re hopeless at football,’ he scoffed.” I feel “he scoffed” is probably unnecessary here. It doesn’t add anything beyond “he said.”

  28. Elecon 20 Oct 2013 at 2:04 am

    “How much did you bench?” asked the first Marine. “Three hundred,” admitted the second.

    “How much did you bench?” asked the first author. “One thirty,” boasted B. Mac.

    Hah, more of your hilarious humour. Keep it up :). This is an excellent article, and it’s really helped me. Reading back on my first draft, I’ve realised that I have an unnatural determination not to use the word ‘said.’ I’m glad I found this now – I can fix it up before everything becomes too concrete. Thanks!

  29. Mark Houlton 20 Jul 2014 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for this article. The list of “safe” words is particularly useful.

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