Today's post is a revision of something I wrote around a year ago stating that said is considered to be invisible.
In that post, I told you guys that in your dialogue, your characters should be saying stuff rather than exclaiming or retorting it. I said your dialogue and action beats should be doing the work rather than your clever replacement of said.
I still think this is true, but what I would like to revise is my suggestion that the word "said" is invisible to the reader. Because I think saying that implied that something like this would be okay:
"I want to eat macaroni and cheese," McKenna said.
"Honey, we can't eat macaroni and cheese for breakfast," Stephanie said.
"Why not?" McKenna said.
"Because..." Stephanie said. "We just can't."
"But why not?" McKenna said. "I like macaroni and cheese."
Said is hardly an invisible word there, right? Especially on an audiobook. Can you imagine how obviously repetitive that would sound?
So, like a year ago when I said that said is invisible, what I really meant was if you have to use a dialogue tag, said is the most discreet, and you don't want to draw attention to your tags.
I listened to a POV class of Kristen Heitzmann's where she was asked, "Is there ever a time in a manuscript when you should use said instead of an action beat?" She laughed a little and said, "In the first draft when you don't want to take the time to come up with an action or emotion?"
She was joking ... but not totally.
In a way (and now I'm getting crazy picky here) using said or other tags is a form of telling. You're already showing that this is being said by putting those cute little quotes around it. (I find quotation marks to be absolutely adorable. Anyone else? Just me?)
Obviously people need to know who said what. But can you push yourself to achieve that without the traditional "he said"?
This is a brief scene from the second draft of a manuscript of mine. In this draft, I replaced all my he said/she said with action beats. I've marked my replacements in red:
There’s shouting and scuffling close by, but I can’t seem to lift my head. Pain sears my face. Someone groans. Or was that me?
“Sage?” Desmond’s voice is in my ear, and I tell my eyes to open. He’s crouched there beside me, with Hazel and Marshall too, but it’s as if the morning fog has rolled in. They’re hazy. “Sage? Are you okay? Sage?”
“I’m fine.” Did I say that or just think it?
There’s more shouting. When I open my eyes, my unit mates are all looking at something beyond me. Again I try to turn and see what’s going on. “What’s happening?”
“Everything is okay.” Hazel’s tone is soothing, the one she’ll someday use as a doctor. “You’re going to be fine, Sage.”
I don’t care about me! How’s Nellie?! But all I can seem to croak is, “Nellie?”
Marshall’s broad forehead furrows.“What’s she saying?”
Hazel bends closer to me. “I don’t know.”
Have they moved farther away from me? My eyes close, and I can’t seem to reopen them.
Their voices, repeating my name with increasing panic, are drifting away.
Sage? Sage? Sage?
Then they’re gone.
Again, all that red stuff is where, in my hurried first draft, I originally had a form of he said or she said. Sometimes I had it in addition to the action beat ("What's she saying?" Marshall asks. His broad forehead furrows.)
It's a lot better like this, isn't it? Not only is the writing tighter without the unnecessary saids, but it opens up the opportunity to show the reader more of what's going on and to drop in on more of the POV characters thoughts.
I know you see said and retorted and questioned in a lot of bestselling books that you love. I certainly do. I'm reading the Harry Potter series right now and there are dialogue tags all through that thing.
But my challenge for you - and this is something I've challenged myself to do as I edit my current manuscript - is to examine the saids (and its various forms) in your manuscript and ask yourself is this necessary or can I show this better with an action or a thought?
Question for you guys - where are you in your writing at the moment? Tackling a first draft? Researching your setting? Final edits?