by Carly Cantor
Novelists work hard to create edgy or witty or snappy or simply realistic-sounding dialogue. But even when that goal is achieved, awkward mechanics can make these passages sound stilted and amateurish.
Many writers seem to feel that continually writing said after a character has spoken is boring and monotonous. To remedy this “problem,” they resort to alternative speaking verbs such as averred, opined, stated, uttered. But the result is the creation of a new problem to solve a nonproblem. Those rather formal words stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the reader’s attention to the words themselves rather than what the characters are saying.
Writers, don’t fret about frequent use of said. It won’t come across as repetitive (unless you use it after almost every spoken phrase in a section of dialogue). The reader’s brain takes in the words in quotation marks and skips over the word said. But if you call attention to the speaking verb by reaching for vocabulary words, then the reader will be distracted from the story—never a good thing.
Another temptation is to use words that are not speaking verbs, as in the following examples:
- “I guess you’re not the great chef you thought you were,” I gloated.
- “You always give me a hard time,” she griped.
To gloat is to “observe or think about something with triumphant and often malicious satisfaction, gratification, or delight” according to Merriam-Webster. Gloat does not connote speech. Neither does gripe.
Instead, try something like:
- “I guess you’re not the great chef you thought you were.” I tried to suppress my smile. It wasn’t like me to gloat, but I couldn’t help myself.
- “You always give me a hard time,” she said, whipping her hand in front of my face in a fake slap.
See the difference. The narrated thought that follows the statement makes it clear that the narrator has just spoken, so there is actually no need for said or any other speaking verb. The narrated thought in the first example communicates the gloating. The description of the hand motion communicates the idea that the speaker is displeased (griping).
I also often see “she teased” “he joked” “she lied,” “he bragged,” etc.
Stick to speaking verbs. Good alternatives to said include whispered, shouted, murmured, hissed—where appropriate, of course. If you want to communicate that a character is joking, laughing, lying, or whatever, accomplish that in some other way.
Wherever possible, make the identity of the speaker apparent from context and avoid speaking verbs altogether. When there are only two characters in the scene, it’s often clear who’s speaking. If not, you might describe the character’s demeanor immediately after his or her remark. A narrated comment directly following a character’s quoted words (without a paragraph break) visually indicates that it is the subject of the comment who has just spoken.
“Get out of my way!” Reggie pushed the tall woman aside.
There’s no need to add Reggie said, since it’s clear here that Reggie (the subject of the narrated comment) is the one who said, “Get out of my way!”
Another way to make it clear who is speaking without resorting to said is to have the speaker address the partner in conversation by name now and again, as long as it comes across as natural.
“Eoman, you can’t be serious.”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life, Nicole.”
Rarely, if ever, use adverbs to modify said. Excessive use of adverbs comes across as amateurish—the writer is resorting to telling rather than showing. For instance, avoid a phrase like “she said nervously.” Communicate the nervousness in some other way—through her body movements, her choice of words, or a narrated thought. For instance:
“When can we … I mean … how do we … at what point do we … get started?” She wiped her clammy hands on her jeans.
Such issues of mechanics may not be as important as story arc, great characters, good pacing, etc., but these touches are what make a read feel smooth and seamless. If the reader can get lost in your story and not feel slapped every now and then by the heavy hand of the writer, your story will work its magic.