Using alternatives for ‘said’

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 8th, 2012. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


When you’re writing, do you use ‘said’ over and over, or do you go for variety by looking for alternatives?

I had an internet discussion with a fellow writer (who turned out to be fifteen years old, the relevance of which I’ll get to in a moment). He argued that ‘said’ is a bland, weak word and that I should be using stronger alternatives. I argued that ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are accepted as bland tags and that the overuse of colorful alternatives is not in fashion these days.

Later I brought up this discussion at the dinner table, and my partner suggested that the use of colorful alternatives is fostered by school teachers trying to get their students to liven up their creative writing assignments. For research we grabbed a bunch of books from our shelves.

I wanted to check out some YA to see if the use of alternatives is common, and in the Percy Jackson series I found some pretty heavy doses. The book that I looked at was the first in the series but I wanted to quote in here from something available on the internet, so here, from “The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2)”, by Rick Riordan, page 11, an excerpt of which is available on Amazon:

“I…I am a freak?” he asked me.

“No,” I promised, gritting my teeth. “Matt Sloan is the freak.”

Tyson sniffed. “You are a good friend. Miss you next year if …if I can’t …”

His voice trembled. I realized he didn’t know if he’d be invited back next year for the community service project. I wondered if the headmaster had even bothered talking to him about it.

“Don’t worry, big guy,” I managed. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Not the most extreme example, but even in this excerpt we go from asked to promised, followed by the action sniffed, to the most difficult one to swallow, “I managed.” That last one is pretty gross, imho. Even promised feels like a situation where someone has reviewed the novel with the specific objective of trying to replace every said with an alternative.

In a different extreme I have wondered whether D. H. Lawrence was allergic to attribution tags. The generally accepted rule is to not go more than five statements before clarifying for the reader who is speaking, but here from “Sons and Lovers” (available from the Gutenberg collection) the identities are kept clear by 1) having only two persons in the scene, 2) short statements, and most of all by 3) clear cut objectives and positions of each of the two; one constantly pushing away and the other constantly questioning:

“I have been thinking,” he said, “we ought to break off.”
“Why?” she cried in surprise.
“Because it’s no good going on.”
“Why is it no good?”
“It isn’t. I don’t want to marry. I don’t want ever to marry. And if we’re not going to marry, it’s no good going on.”
“But why do you say this now?”
“Because I’ve made up my mind.”
“And what about these last months, and the things you told me then?”
“I can’t help it! I don’t want to go on.”
“You don’t want any more of me?”
“I want us to break off—you be free of me, I free of you.”
“And what about these last months?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not told you anything but what I thought was true.”
“Then why are you different now?”
“I’m not—I’m the same—only I know it’s no good going on.”
“You haven’t told me why it’s no good.”
“Because I don’t want to go on—and I don’t want to marry.”
“How many times have you offered to marry me, and I wouldn’t?”
“I know; but I want us to break off.”

Or, this excerpt from later in the same novel where a conversation between two characters has become between three, yet Lawrence uses the bare minimum of attribution tags in a three way conversation:

They looked into each other’s eyes, laughing. At that moment they became aware of Miriam. There was a click, and everything had altered.
“Hello, Miriam!” he exclaimed. “You said you’d come!”
“Yes. Had you forgotten?”
She shook hands with Clara, saying:
“It seems strange to see you here.”
“Yes,” replied the other; “it seems strange to be here.”
There was a hesitation.
“This is pretty, isn’t it?” said Miriam.
“I like it very much,” replied Clara.
Then Miriam realised that Clara was accepted as she had never been.
“Have you come down alone?” asked Paul.
“Yes; I went to Agatha’s to tea. We are going to chapel. I only called in for a moment to see Clara.”
“You should have come in here to tea,” he said.
Miriam laughed shortly, and Clara turned impatiently aside.
“Do you like the chrysanthemums?” he asked.
“Yes; they are very fine,” replied Miriam.
“Which sort do you like best?” he asked.
“I don’t know. The bronze, I think.”
“I don’t think you’ve seen all the sorts. Come and look. Come and see which are YOUR favourites, Clara.”
He led the two women back to his own garden, where the towsled bushes of flowers of all colours stood raggedly along the path down to the field. The situation did not embarrass him, to his knowledge.
“Look, Miriam; these are the white ones that came from your garden. They aren’t so fine here, are they?”
“No,” said Miriam.
“But they’re hardier. You’re so sheltered; things grow big and tender, and then die. These little yellow ones I like. Will you have some?”

Lots of asked and replieds rather than saids, but that’s the nature of this particular conversation. More importantly, note all the dialogue that has no tag in spite of the fact that three people are present. Lawrence has used the absolute minimum number of tags for this given dialogue and yet it is always clear who is speaking.

For our research we also pulled out some detective novels, some Alice Munro and others that I can’t remember. And later I also took a look at “The Hunger Games”, by Suzanne Collins, another YA novel but one that had been recommended to students by my daughter’s high school, to see if that one might be the same or different from The Olympians series. We found no other examples of (what I would call) overuse of alternatives.

The results of my survey: unless you can’t help it, don’t overuse alternatives to ‘said’. Unless, perhaps, you’re writing for an audience that won’t complain and who can take the sensory overload. School teachers might still push their students to consider alternatives, but overusing tags makes the writing stilted, and overusing colorful tags makes the writing garish.

I don’t think Robert Ludlum would be too offended with the description that I have indirectly applied. 🙂

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