Said Bookisms

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Often you will hear writers and editors talk about an aspect of dialogue called the said bookism. I first learned this term many years ago from the excellent writing podcast Writing Excuses. Since then, proper use of dialogue indicators has become one of my biggest editing crusades. Let’s talk about said bookisms, why they can be a problem, and what you can do to avoid them.

Said bookism defined

Basically, a said bookism is any verb you would use to replace “said” in a dialogue tag. They tend to have a melodramatic connotation, but they can be simple as well:

“They’re really useful,” she whispered.

“Stop using ‘said’!” he exclaimed.

“But I want to,” you mumbled.

Said bookisms are really tempting to use. Part of the problem is that, sometime in the last few decades, the publishing world went through some sort of dialogue paradigm shift—people proclaimed “said is dead”, and your elementary school teacher probably taught you to turn immediately to a thesaurus any time you thought about writing the word “said”.

You can read plenty of older books in which using words like “hissed”, “sighed”, and even actions like “shrugged” were used as dialogue tags. I’m actually in the middle of reading a rather excellent series—Robert Asprin’s Myth-Adventures—which began publication in 1978 and is chock-full of said bookisms.

However, modern consensus is that you should only use said bookisms occasionally. They should serve as the garnish to a well-seasoned dialogue dish. (The main exception is “asked”, which acts more or less like “said” but for questions.)

Reasons to Avoid

So why are said bookisms so frowned upon? First of all, they draw the reader’s attention away from the story. The great thing about “said” is that it is practically invisible. The brain basically disregards the word “said” as soon as it associates the speaker with the piece of dialogue. I imagine it’s somewhat similar to the way I’ll gloss over a particularly hard-to-pronounce name and just sort of acknowledge her as the “N-character”.[1] We don’t even really read the words.

But once you’ve got a character who rants, stammers, or wails every line, you start to wonder what’s wrong with his voice (or his self esteem). Instead of being immersed in the story, you’re pulled out of it.

The second main downfall of the said bookism is that, in a lot of ways, it demonstrates a certain laziness. If we can’t tell that your character is yelling without you telling us, then you haven’t done a good enough job describing the scene or wording the dialogue in an angry way. (Or, perhaps worse, you have done a good enough job describing it and now you’re just being repetitive by saying “she yelled”.) So when you’re tempted to use a said bookism, first go into your pre-existing dialogue and description to see if you really need it and whether or not you can do anything to strengthen what you’ve already written instead. I’m a firm believer in the concept of “make every sentence serve more than one purpose”.[2]

For me, my negative reaction is even more vehement when the said bookism employed isn’t even something that you can physically do to produce words. How does one “shrug” or “smile” or “laugh” a word out? In cases like this, I think the author was on the right path. They were trying to do something valuable by providing visual description as well as dialogue—but they’re going about it the wrong way.

A Better Way

The key to proper dialogue indication is to use scene and character descriptions to fill in the blanks.

I’m going to quote a passage from Andy Weir’s new book Artemis (Crown, 2017), which is told from the point of view of the main character, Jazz:

“Good to see you too,” I said. I dropped the contraband on the couch.

Trond gestured to the guest. “This is Jin Chu from Hong Kong. Jin, this is Jazz Bashara. She’s a local gal, Grew up right here on the moon.

Jin bowed his head quickly, then spoke with an American accent. “Nice to meet you, Jazz.” It caught me off guard and I guess it showed.

Trond laughed. “Yeah, Jin here is a product of high-class American private schools. Hong Kong, man. It’s a magical place.”

“But not as magical as Artemis!” Jin beamed. “This is my first visit to the moon. I’m like a kid in a candy store! I’ve always been a fan of science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek. Now I get to live it!”

Star Trek?” Trond said. “Seriously? That’s like a hundred years old.”

“Quality is quality,” Jin said. “Age is irrelevant.”

You can see here that Weir has a nice mix of “said” and character descriptions serving as dialogue indicators. When Trond gestures or Jin beams, we know who said what. We also learn something about the speaker.

Weir also demonstrates here the opposite of the laziness principle. We can tell how much Jin is fanboying without Weir telling us. Trond’s response oozes friendly sarcasm. And, in fact, the way Jazz doesn’t interrupt the conversation tells us something about her character as well; she’s content to let the two of them banter.

How often you use “said”, other dialogue indicators, or nothing at all, depends on the pace of the dialogue. If two characters in a well-established setting are having a fast-paced argument, you can omit some of the dialogue indicators entirely and keep the others very short. On the other hand, the more description you fit in between bits of dialogue, the more you are indicating to the reader that the conversation is mellower. You’ve left time for the characters (particularly the POV character, whose head is providing all the description) to think.

And again, I’m not saying never ever use a said bookism. Just make sure you’re doing it for a good reason. Remember, it’s like parsley. You wouldn’t want to eat a parsley salad, would you?[3]

So next time you’re writing dialogue, please think before you use a said bookism!

 

Challenge: take the most recent fiction chapter you’ve read, guess how many times it used the word “said”, then go actually count. Share your results in the comments below!

[1] I eventually settled on Nihn-ehv, but I think the official pronunciation is “nine-eve”, which is much less pretty! Shout out to my Wheel of Time friends.

[2] Which is another topic I plan to write about soon!

[3] Note that I have since been informed that my analogy was wrong. Sometimes you do want to eat a parsley salad! https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/parsley-salad (Thanks Penny!)

Follow Bonnie McKnight:

Bonnie has been an editor all her life—at the age of two she famously argued with her father over whether it was more properly called "fog" or "mist". She has worked as a professional editor at Crystal Publishing, LLC since 2015 and has degrees in history and English, including an MA in book history from the University of London. She believes that the British are on to something when they don't require the punctuation to fall inside the quotation marks!

2 Responses

  1. Will Walker
    | Reply

    I looked at chapter IV.10 of Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Knight and Knave of Swords’ from 1988. There were seven ‘saids’. There were some ‘asked’. There were plenty of undisguised said bookisms (“cried, argued, amplified, called, instructed, commanding, proclaimed). The rest were half-buried said bookisms like this one: “Cif broke away from the importunate Pshawri to aver with great certitude “He went down there. I touched his pate and top hair before he sank away”

    • Bonnie McKnight
      | Reply

      “To aver with great certitude”–Oh man, that’s great! Sounds like quite the grandiose book

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