12

I am surprised by the vehemence of many writers' objection to said-bookisms -- the practice of using a verb other than "said" or "asked" in order to convey dialog. Writers are told you can't hiss an entire sentence nor laugh one either.

I feel like this is crippling writers in terms of semantics and inflection. Semantically, 'said' is a verb now primarily used as a placemarker to identify the speaker. Yet it doesn't add any inflection to what is written. We are told to contort our natural dialogue so the reader can understand what is written, in order to work around the need for nonstandard dialogue tags. Alternatively, we are urged to use of a never ending stream of 'said' or 'asked' because they are invisible to the readers.

Other than Groupthink and 'because Stephen King doesn't like them,’ how did bookisms fall so far out of favor in current writing? Why did great writers of the past have no trouble using them, but today they are viewed as a sign of an amateur writer?

  • 1
    Here is my problem: right in your first three sentences you contradict yourself: Scientist abhor Groupthink, it is in our nature as rebels. It is how science progresses. – Lambie Jan 1 '17 at 17:12
  • Screenwriters don't need to write /said/ because they are writing dialogue. Novel writers are not. They are different literary forms. Try reading some Elmore Leonard, he was a past master at handling them and sparingly so. – Lambie Jan 1 '17 at 17:24
  • 1
    Normally, we don't write science with a capital s but I guess you missed my first point altogether. – Lambie Jan 1 '17 at 20:05
  • 2
    No, no profession is normally in caps unless there is a special reason for it. In regular writing, no caps are used for a profession or subject matter. I just don't understand where one might get that idea. – Lambie Jan 2 '17 at 16:31
  • 1
    I feel the original question was meandering, and a lot of the community had trouble following it and understanding what was being asked. I've edited, almost entirely focusing on what I saw as your key lines. Please let me know (or re-edit, or roll back my edit entirely) if I've misinterpreted what you're asking. – Standback Jan 15 '17 at 21:54
15

First thing first: Avoiding said-bookisms is a guideline, not a rule.

Writers use said-bookisms all the time, precisely for the reasons you note. They're useful. Sometimes, they're the simplest, clearest way to get something across.

The problem isn't use. It's abuse.

There are multiple issues which are common with said-bookisms:

Using a said-bookism to force a reader into an unlikely, unsupported interpretation.

"I've been going over your tax returns," she purred. "It seems you've been claiming some awfully large deductions. But," she sulked, "I noticed you asked for a filing extension, as well."

This is a classic telling-rather-than-showing. What we're shown is somebody talking about tax returns, but we're told that we're meant to interpret it in a flirty, sexual manner.

Why? What gives us that impression? The author doesn't tell us.

Sometimes, that's absolutely fine. Sometimes, that's all that's needed. Sometimes, that's exactly what the author is aiming for. But (a) the more justification it needs, the less fine this kind of use it; it makes the dialogue tags feel arbitrary. And (b) if an author leans on this tool too heavily, then they wind up never showing anything, just telling us how to interpret everything.

Imagine, not one line of dialogue, but a whole scene of sexy tax returns. Imagine that besides the said-bookisms, there's no other description of flirting, of responses, of reactions -- just two people, going about their day, discussing really boring stuff, but being given lots of sexy dialogue tags.

This may sound ridiculous or extreme to you. But it's a painfully common error. Particularly when writers are establishing character, they can tend to just add descriptive dialogue tags to everything that character says -- in their minds, that character is now "acting" "correctly," because he's saying everything "the right way" -- and never actually demonstrate his character in a way the readers can see for themselves.

Using said-bookisms in a misguided attempt to avoid repeating the word 'said'.

"This is urgently important," she growled at him.

"Is it really?" he whined.

"It absolutely is," she affirmed. "So sit down and shut up," she commanded.

Some writers aren't even close to "I want a word here with just the right inflection and connotation." Some writers are -- or, in previous generations, have been -- more at the stage of "Oh no, I can't write 'Bob said' here, I've written 'said' three times on this page alone!"

Repeating obtrusive words is a problem. Some writers, particularly beginning writers, don't realize that "said" is not an obtrusive word. "Said" can be used over and over, whenever you are trying to express no concept more complicated than "this person said this line."

If writers do not realize this, they can find themselves hunting for words that are less good than "said", that carry connotations they do not want, merely for the purpose of not repeating "said" too often. Instead, the constant need to use unusual words to express the simple "said", becomes extremely obtrusive and annoying.

This is the origin of the term "said bookisms" -- there used to be "said books," full of dialogue tags, "she grumbled," "he sang," "they demanded." As you can imagine, writers who needed a book to hunt for words to express that yet again a line of dialogue has occurred, are probably not producing top-notch fiction.

Using said-bookisms which are jarring to the reader.

"Well, I am rather pleased to announce my betrothal and upcoming nuptials to my dear, darling Felicia," he snapped.

"Oh, I'm just so happy for you," she ejaculated.

Some said-bookisms just aren't expressing what you mean them to. Some readers will be genuinely jarred at a person "smiling" a line of dialogue, or "hissing" a line with no sibilants.

Yes, this is subjective; lots of readers won't mind. Of course, any writer can write some phrasing that grates on some readers anywhere, not only when writing said-bookisms.

But said-bookisms are particularly suspect, because, well, if you're describing somebody saying something, you kind of need a good reason to depart from plain old "said," and you need to do a good job departing from it. Your own connotations and inflections may not be commonly shared, and you run the risk of ruffling at least some portion of your readers if you say "Well OK but I don't mean she literally hissed," or whatnot.

Again -- a writer using said-bookisms out of desperation, is going to stumble on this much more than a writer using a said-bookism because it's the exact phrase that's appropriate here.


So: said-bookisms have many pitfalls, and are often entirely unnecessary and distracting.

None of that is to say you can't use them.

It just means you need to know the pitfalls, and when you do want to use a said-bookisms, make sure none of the pitfalls applies to you.

  • Most examples here shamelessly yoinked from TV Tropes' page on the Said Bookism. – Standback Jan 15 '17 at 22:52
5

It's more or less an idiosyncracy of language, I believe. I am a translator from English to Czech and one of the things I have to deal with -- constantly -- is INSERTING said bookisms to replace the plain English language. It's funny that the arguments I see on this page are more or less the reverse of what holds in my native language. In Czech, there is a huge number of dialogue tags that can be used, and frequent re-use is frowned upon.

And so, "said" is like a spice here, used sparsely. Characters can proclaim, mention, offer, hesitate. If a character blinks while speaking, you are allowed to use the BLINK as your dialogue tag.

"What did you say?" blinked Bob.

Sounds terrible in English, but it's perfectly acceptable in Czech.

  • True. Not only in Czech - in French and Russian too one expects variation, using "said" all the time is considered poor writing. Hebrew, on the other hand, follows the English example. – Galastel Aug 26 at 9:31
  • Welcome to Writing.SE Marek14, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center. That's a great answer and one I didn't know about. For some reason it makes me think of food... You can have all the salt and pepper you want. If you must, a bit of jalapeño... – Cyn Aug 26 at 15:44
4

There is a pervasive misunderstanding today about how language works. It is, in its operation, heavily symbolic and analogical. Can a fever rage? Of course it can. Language is naturally analogical, and far more deeply analogical than most people realize when they are claiming things like "technically, a fever can't rage".

Because it is deeply analogical and symbolic, language is also deeply prone to ambiguity, and the way we resolve ambiguity is by reference to story. A statement that has many possible interpretations is interpreted in a particular way because of the story, and the story domain, in which it is embedded.

This sometimes creates a difficulty for science writing because it is embedded in a story domain (science) with which readers are not necessarily familiar. Writers attempt to pin words down mechanically to a single denotation. This exercise leads them to imagine that language actually works this way -- that it works like a programming language in which each term has a single denotation and every expression is formally disambiguated by its grammar.

This is a false view of language but it leads to the development of simple rules for writing. People love simple rules, even if they are wrong. They will cling to them with surprising ferocity, despite repeated illustrations that they are wrong. They will not give up one simple rule unless they are provided with another equally simple rule to replace it. And in a case where the truth is much more complex and difficult than the simple rules, it is almost impossible to wean people off the simple rules, no matter how often they fail.

The same it true at a larger scale as well. Writing is incredibly difficult and complex. People want simple rules like "show, don't tell". No matter how often you demonstrate, by reference to the works of great writers, that these simple rules don't work, it does not matter. People will not give up one simple rules unless you replace it with another. But writing is too complex to be captured in simple rules. So we continually see new simple ideas about things like speech tags become part of the writing school gospel from time to time.

Can we demonstrate the fallacy of such rules by reference to the works of great writers. Sure we can. Will it make any difference? No.

  • 1
    I love the way you think, analytical and willing to point out fallacies despite how fervently others hold them. You have already taught me much in StackExchange. This is the best forum I have ever used for teaching not only the how but also the why or writing.In science we also honor those more esteemed in knowledge. I salute you. I have so much to learn, I only hope others are not offended that I ask why a lot more than how. If writers want a static language I suggest they learn Latin because all other languages and their 'rules' evolve and change over time. Our job as writers is to keep up. – Richard Stanzak Jan 1 '17 at 19:20
  • Everything that Mark says is absolutely correct, however I feel like these guidelines are mostly intended as advice for novice writers that are more prone to literary pitfalls. How many times have you read a passage whereby the author narrates, in great detail, the protagonists' appearance? How many times have you read something jarring such as 'the table screamed as it broke in half'? In the latter instance, the reader generally understands what the author means but (for me) it's lazy writing. 'Show, don't tell' is a good way to discourage lazy writing, I feel. – Rapscallion Jan 16 '17 at 13:07
  • 2
    Actually, I think "show don't tell" is the perfect way to encourage lazy writing. So often it encourages people to do nothing but action and dialogue. Storytelling is more difficult, requires a more deft touch with language, pace, and imagery. It is also what sets a novel apart from a movie script. It is the essence of the art of the novel. – user16226 Jan 16 '17 at 13:31
  • Reminding novice authors that they ought to focus on what's important in their scenes doesn't encourage lazy writing, in my opinion. Action and dialogue drive the plot; sweeping descriptions do not (typically). It would be a poor author that takes the 'show don't tell' guideline to the extreme, resulting in a movie script. That, to me, is indicative of a misinterpretation of the advice. – Rapscallion Jan 16 '17 at 14:41
2

Perhaps I missed it, but the other answers don't explain the main reason to use 'said' almost exclusively:

Speed

Dialogue in real life is fluid and a lot of words/information can be exchanged in a very short period of time. Conversely, written dialogue eats up space on the page even for very short exchanges. The solution?

Make the dialogue tags as basic as possible so they're almost invisible. Use the barest minimum number of tags so that readers can experience the dialogue at a more authentic-feeling speed.

EDIT:

It's also important to have a character's actions feel authentic. If two characters speak and length and then suddenly there is a 'she said suggestively', then I would be disappointed. To me, it feels like lazy writing because the author is attempting to achieve something using a single word or short phrase. As a reader, I would much rather witness the characters moving closer, shuffling awkwardly, breathing shallowly etc. to convey their flirtations.

2

You are specifically asking about the objection to bookisms. It's certainly en vogue for the last twenty years or so to eliminate bookisms. I'm older, so perhaps I'm stubborn in my efforts to responsibly use them. Here are some of the arguments I've heard:

  1. It slows readers down by bringing attention to the dialogue tag rather than the dialogue. But consider the example Josh said, "Look out for that truck!" What the reader "hears" is Look out for that TRUCK. However, if you write Josh screamed, "Look out for that truck!" then the reader hears LOOK OUT FOR THAT TRUCK which more approximates what the writer wants.

  2. Readers don't notice the monotony of said. This is a good point. But agents and editors will tell you to make every word count. If you use said 500 times in a 80,000 word novel ...

  3. Writers can't find commercial success with bookisms. David Baldacci wrote 10 straight bestsellers. 10 straight! 6 were number 1s. One of the differences? That's right, more bookisms in the number 1s. It gives the word said an adverbial quality, heightening the suspense when done right.

  4. When done right? How are we as writers to know. It's just easier to use said. Any serious attempt at a commercial publication should include a beta reader group. There is ALWAYS someone in a writers' group who's a bookism hound. If the hound doesn't notice, the rabbit is pretty safe.

  5. It's time-consuming to consider your dialogue tags. Yeah, but it's more time consuming when your book sucks, and you have to start over. You should be considering every word and rearranging sentences to avoid tags a good percentage of the time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.