Tuesday, July 11, 2006

All in the Way it's "Said"

The previous James River Writers Conference took place about nine months ago, but I’m going to revisit it and open up debate among the Lair’s readers about one little word: said.

One of the most impressive guests speaking at last year’s conference was Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World. The man himself proved interesting to me for his eccentricity and his seeming befuddlement at his success. I don’t expect anything I ever write to match the literary level of Jones, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t take his advice to heart. If any of his advice impressed me most it was in regards to the word “said.” Jones said that’s basically the only word he uses when he has to attribute dialogue to a character. I’ve read similar advice in the past and taken that advice with a rather heavy dose of doubt. Hearing Jones discuss it made me reconsider my opinion on this bland word.

Some might argue it’s foolish to limit your writing to that one word when so many more colorful choices exist. After all, words such as “griped,” “instructed” or “replied” can attribute dialogue just as well as “said” and convey another aspect to the dialogue. Jones offers a great counter-argument. He just uses “said” and relies on the dialogue itself to convey its added meanings. I still wasn’t sold after hearing Jones say this at the conference, but then I read through some of my own writing. In almost every case, when the dialogue was good enough, it made those more colorful cousins of “said” unnecessary. Consider the following:

Griped? If the character doesn’t already sound as if he/she is griping, then it’s not very effective griping, now is it?

Instructed? If a character says, “Hold your sword by the hilt and stick the pointy end into the other man,” do you really need to point out this is instruction? The dialogue makes that pretty clear by itself.

Replied? If the character is replying to another character’s previous dialogue, then it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

After reading through enough of my previous work to wince at all of the redundancy, I was a convert. Do I think there’s room for any words other than “said?” Yes. Hard as I try, I can’t think of a way to convey a “whisper” without using that word to attribute the dialogue.

Also, should I ever use anything other than “said,” then limiting most of my writing to the word “said” makes the use of any other word that much more powerful.

Disagree with me on this one? Do you think making “said” the only choice is tiresome and unoriginal? Maybe you even believe that “said” is the last word you should use. Now, it’s your turn. Make your case.


Sandra Ruttan said...

I occasionally like some variety from said. Particularly when people use 'she said emphatically' or something like that. Why not just 'she emphasized' then? Best thing to do is to drop dialogue tags whenever you can and insert action to keep the reader on cue as to who is talking, and not get repetitious.


H.E.Eigler said...

Sometimes I don't use anything. Sometimes it is quite obvious by the dialogue who is speaking and so I just let it be. And then there are times (particularly when writing flash) that I use” he said”, “she said” as a type of punctuation or drum beat in the rhythm of the piece. I don't normally use anything other than said but I wouldn't say I subscribe to the rule that nothing else should be used. Sometimes, like you pointed out, a “whispered” is welcome.

angie said...

I'm not a big fan of griped, replied, crowed, etc. If I use a dialogue tag, I tend to go for said. Mostly I try to avoid them and use an action after the dialogue. Sometimes whispered is okay, but often you can tell in context what volume the dialogue is likely to be spoken. Don't like never, ever rules, but generally stick to "said."