Friday, April 1, 2016

Said is dead... Really?

Another list of synonyms and words to substitute for "said" came in my email box recently. From time to time, I copy such lists and file them in my "verb" binder because they remind me not to follow such rhetoric.

However, before I hit the delete button on this latest list for said substitutes, I realized the words came from a list being used in grade school. Students who are given such lists are being encouraged to broaden their verb vocabularies, which is a good thing. Only what is good for the student isn't necessarily good when writing fiction.

Okay, so technically said is a verb, but it can also be an adjective. More importantly, when writing fiction, said is part of a speech tag that shows who's talking. The trouble with most substitutes for said is that they constitute "telling" not "showing." When writing fiction, showing is better than telling. For example, if a person wrote: "You did it," John said, pointing his finger at Matt. This is a basic bit of dialogue with a speech tag that has a beat (or stage business).

Yet, what really shows the accusation is the dialogue itself, "You did it" coupled with the stage business (or beat) of "pointing his finger at Matt." Then again, this can be shown even better as: John pointed his finger at Matt. "You did it!"

On the other hand, if you follow the rhetoric of swapping words, like "accused" for said, you get: "You did it, Matt," John accused. This is not only awkward but also blatant telling. Sadly, I see too much of this in newbie writers' manuscripts and in self- and independently-published novels.

Other things I noticed on the list of said substitutes were such words as barked, bawled, bleated, and bubbled. You can't bark and talk at the same time. That's a physical impossibility. Okay, so commands can be "barked out" by someone giving orders. For example: The sergeant barked out, "Give me twenty!" Every recruit dropped to the ground and did twenty pushups.

Out of curiosity, I checked a more lengthy list (four pages) that was in my file. I wondered how many were "telling" verbs, and how many could safely be swapped when writing fiction. Here's what I discovered:

    Total words on the list: 397
    Number of words that worked as listed when swapped out for said: 8 (hollered, yelled, shouted, whispered, muttered, mumbled, replied, and answered).
    Number of words that worked if "out" was added to them: 35  

(examples: barked out, cried out, blurted out, hissed out, and wheezed out).
    That left a balance of 354 synonyms for said.

Some of those remaining synonyms were rather odd words that should be avoided, like: bossed, preached, professed, empathized, acquiesced, ad-libbed, advocated, foretold, granted, decreed, nagged, itemized, and resumed. (They are "telling" not "showing.")

There were also some baffling words on the list. One was exclaimed, which is so cliched because if there is an exclamation point, the reader knows the words are exclaimed. Then there was whistled. I would like to hear dialogue whistled, wouldn't you?

Of course, if pages of fiction are peppered with saids, something should be done to not only eliminate as many saids as possible but to also convert most of those "telling" words into beats or stage business.

However, if you've drafted a story using synonym substitutes for said, perhaps you should resurrect a few saids. After all, to most readers, said is as invisible as the word "the."

For the remaining synonyms you've used for said, consider those red-flag words of warning to revise and show instead of tell.
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