Dont Be Afraid to Say Said

There was another point to be made about student Wally's dialogue as shown in the preceding chapter. It's such a basic point-but one so often misunderstood - that it deserves a chapter of its own.

"How do I say somebody in my story said something?" students ask again and again.

"Use the word 'said, ' " I usually tell them, "and for heaven's sake put the noun or pronoun first. "

In the example in Chapter Eighteen, Wally violated both rules. He used every word but "said" as an attribution verb, and for some unknown reason he turned his syntax around so he was writing things like "quoth Annie" - the verb first.

Reverse order attribution is not a biggie; some fine authors do it a lot. I have known editors, however, who got very irritated with "said he" and "replied she" rather than the more straightforward way of ordering the words; they say the reverse order sounds old-fashioned to them, and is distracting.

Sometimes, of course, reverse order is almost mandatory, as when you have to get a long title or description in with the name. You may find yourself confronted with something like:

"I'm tired of arguing", Joe Smith, aging family patriarch and president of the First Mercantile Bank of Lake City, Colorado, said.

In such a case, to get away from that "said" yipping along a block behind the quote, you'll probably use reverse order, and rightfully so, getting the "said" in right behind the quoted words and in front of everything else. But most transactions are simpler, and standard order seems to be the norm.

As to the other matter-use of synonyms for the simple attribution word "said" -I really believe things are more serious. "Said" is a transparent word-a pointer to a who who said something. Any other attribution word will stick out and perhaps distract the reader without need, unless the situation really does demand a "scream" or a "sigh" or a "shout. " You should use the invisible word "said" about 90 percent of the time. Of course you will use other words like "asked", "replied", "told", etc. -when the context makes such a word obviously appropriate. But you should use even these only when it really does seem natural in context.

If you've been guilty of using every synonym in the thesaurus, using the simple "said" will worry you to death for a while. It's one of those "author worries" that readers just don't think about. Believe me: If you use stage action and thoughts, and the simple verb "said", readers will be totally happy. Why distract them and wear out your thesaurus when it's not required or even smart?

Take some time to think about this one. Examine your copy critically. Are you sure the reader is going to be oriented in the ways we've discussed here? And have you fine-checked your dialogue to make sure it doesn't sound old-fashioned or eccentric? From such distinctions good writers are made; care for the reader, along with standard usages, free you to concentrate on characters and plots - the really good stuff of fiction.

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