Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The invisible said

For those who entered the writing prompt contest, we had 38 entries this round. Right now they're with the judge who will pick the top 20. I should be able to post the top 20 tomorrow, so stay tuned for that.

Also, I would like to state for the record that you guys are welcome to call me Stephanie. I must say, I'm very impressed by the overall politeness I've encountered on Go Teen Writers. It's good to call industry professionals Mister or Missus until given permission otherwise. This is me giving permission otherwise. You can call me Stephanie.

On Monday, I posted about how words matter and that we should pick interesting nouns and verbs when telling our story. As I mentioned there, the exception to this rule is the word "said."

In my early writing days, I loved getting creative with my dialogue tags. My characters rarely said anything. Instead they stated, retorted, shouted, queried, hissed, and so forth. I also liked to mix up the order. Instead of, "Do this," Tina said. I would often write, "Do this," said Tina.

You may think this is dumb. You may want to argue about this with me. Fine. If you're writing something just for you, your characters can retort and exclaim all they want. And you can write "exclaimed Tina" until your pen runs out of ink.

But if it's something you're wanting to publish, wanting agents/editors to take seriously, then you will have to stop spicing up "said" and you'll need to write it "Joe said" rather than "said Joe."

The idea is that "said" is an invisible word to a reader. All they're looking for is who is saying it. They see Joe's name and they move on to the next line. So even if you try to sneak in "proclaimed" or "screamed," your editor will change it. If your agent hasn't already.

But how will my reader know the tone of my character? you might be asking yourself.

This comes back to the concept of, "Show, don't tell."

This is telling:

"Why can't you just say you're sorry?" Joe shouted.
This is even worse telling:

"Why can't you just say you're sorry?" Joe shouted angrily.

This is showing:

The vase Joe threw shattered on the concrete floor. "Why can't you just say you're sorry?"

If any object is being thrown, the reader gets that Joe is not a happy guy. Even without the throwing of the vase, from the context of the conversation, we could probably pick up on Joe's tone.

You'll notice in that last example, there's no dialogue tag at all. Instead there's what is called a "beat." It's an action that shows who's talking and what's going on. Here are some other options for beats. (This isn't a conversation, these are individual lines.)

Marin swallowed. "That's not how I meant it."

"Are you sure?" I couldn't believe he really thought that.

With a wink, Tom passed the butter. "You really think that's a good idea?"

I'll confess, I still struggle with using action beats versus "said." This has been one of the hardest habits for me to let go of.

A few other questions you might have:

Can I use "asked"?

Yes. You may occasionally use asked, although many feel the question mark at the end of the sentence makes "asked" redundant. Same as an exclamation point makes the word "shouted" rather redundant.

Can I use "whispered"?

Again, yeah. Sparingly.

Why does it need to be "Joe said" instead of "said Joe"?

I don't know. That's just the industry standard. I had a few "said so-and-so" in my manuscripts, and my editor changed them.

But in Twilight/The Shack/Hunger Games...

Yes, I know.

I think the worst was in The Shack when it was "Whatever he said!" Jesus whispered. I gaped at that line thinking Seriously? Nobody thought to change this? I mean, did he shout it - like the exclamation point shows - or did he whisper - like the author says? Sheesh.

Roseanna White has said it best - Yes, you might be the exception ... but don't count on it. The above are the current standards for dialogue, and you'll save yourself a lot of time and energy if you just embrace it.


  1. My agent shared a hilarious article on this last year that had a great point about the whispered thing. It seems you have two choices sometime: you can say "he whispered," which is a creative dialogue tag and so a no-no. Or you can say "he said softly," which uses an adverb when a stronger verb would do, which is a no-no. LOL. Which goes to show that these are guidelines. You can't ALWAYS do anything like this in writing, but the "rule" is designed to get you out of the habit of always doing it wrong (says a girl who also had her characters speaking, shouting, iterating, rebuking, etc.).

  2. Great advice, Stephanie. You are right that "said" is an invisible tag unless used repeatedly.

    I do allow for "asked" and "whispered." I think these are invisible to most readers as well. In fast action when you want to avoid beats that slow down the pace, an occasional "hissed" or "barked" works fine. In such a case, pace is more important than this tag rule. But use them infrequently.

    I also don't mind "Mary said softly." This is for soft-spoken statement that isn't quite a whisper. But use it sparingly. Usually a show-don't-tell beat is a better option.

    My understanding the using "said Joe" instead of "Joe said" is often allowed in stories for younger readers. You just have to be consistent.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. In my very first draft -- I've gone through lots of them --, it was like Attack of the Alternatives. Luckily, there were a lot of blogs out there explaining that was wrong. (But I didn't find any explaining why. Thanks for that.) The more I have to go back and fix old tags, the less often I find myself making that same problem. So maybe my subconscious is finally starting to catch on.

  4. Stephen King said something like "Adverbs pave the road to hell." While I don't approve of using the word "hell" lightly, I do think that the number of adverbs you use in a manuscript should be moderated and carefully considered.

    Oops. "Considered with a careful eye," I mean. :D

  5. So true! I had a hard sell convincing by best friend that "said" is invisible. Because our homeschool creative writing cirriculum said to never use "said." But I'm glad that someone is spreading the word that "said" is effective! Yay!

  6. Roseanna, that's hilarious. And so true. Like Bryan mentioned in his comment, pacing trumps the tag rule. And an editor trumps it all. I know of at least one editor who likes all the spiced up words, and asks her authors to put them back in.

    Bryan that's so interesting about the "said Joe" for younger readers. Because I've noticed it a lot in my daughter's books. I think the genre nuances are fascinating.

    Jenna "Attack of the Alternatives" made me snort with laughter. That's hilarious. I feel like I'm just now getting better at getting rid of tags. Takes some serious work to rid yourself of those habits!

    Ellyn, you also made me laugh. It's hard to get rid of them all, but they definitely deserve consideration.

    Faye, I'm curious. Did the curriculum want you to spice it up, or to get rid of dialogue tags altogether?

  7. Agh! I'm doomed! My stories are full of the mistakes you've pointed out in the most recent posts! But hey! It's only the first draft, and I'd be thrilled if anyone would come to JT's Tales and critique it.(Pardon the ad, please. I'm pretty excited about this one.)

  8. Thanks for doing this post on said. It really helps me. I wasn't ever sure what to do with that because to me said seems a little something...

  9. I know what you mean, Faye! In my creative writing class "said" was NEVER allowed. My teacher pretty much viewed it like a bad word. :-P

  10. Guilty. :)

    Excellent post (as always), Stephanie. :) You have articulated everything I have read on the subject in a concise and *understandable* way ~ love that. Knowing why 'said' is acceptable ~ the invisibility cloak ~ and why so many others (inquired, spat, & declared rating highest in my fledgling first drafts) should remain in the drawer is invaluable.

  11. This is a super awesome post lol, I love reading your blog. :) It helps me so much in my writing.
    And this is definitely one of my weak spots!
    I've finally gotten the hang of straying away from saying "She said" "he said" "Terra said" to much. I absolutely love putting myself in the MC position and thinking... what would my MC do when she/he says this?
    Or what would it look like when the MC's brother got really angry with her?
    Stuff like that. :D

  12. "said Chloe" not allowed? It is my default; to me ""I'm not sure," Chloe said" sounds unnatural.

    1. "said Chloe" might be allowed in a children's book, but I rarely see it in YA or adult fiction.

      I honestly have no idea why that's the rule, but even the few times I used "said Skylar" in my books were removed by my editor.