If you use Pinterest at all for writing topics, I’m sure you’ve seen these pins come up. They’re always in some cutesy font and usually with little tombstones (subtle) and come with a huge list of words you should use instead of ‘said.’ If you’ve ever paid attention to these, though, you’ll notice that none of these pins ever have a reasonable explanation for why said is dead and you should be using all these synonyms.
Because there isn’t one.
Seriously, If It Exists I’m Not Finding It
I even tucked my pants into my socks, tied my bear bell and my bear mace to my belt, and covered myself down with enough bug spray to take down smaller birds to venture off into the thorny wilds of the second page of the Google results.
God help me, I even tried Bing.
All of the results are the same as those pins. “Said is dead!” followed by a never-ending list of words you can supposedly use instead, but the longer these lists are the more obscure and downright clunky the words are. ‘Enunciate?’ ‘Rejoin?’ Why in the Mutual of Omaha Oscar Wilde’s Kingdom would anyone use these in modern day prose?
If there’s an answer these websites don’t have it. The closest thing to an explanation I could find was this little blurb posted on two separate websites:
“You are doing everything possible to make your writing better, tighter, and more interesting, but are you still using “dead words?” These are words that are simply just too plain, bland, and vague to be included in your awesome writing. One of the most notorious “dead words” is “said.” But dialogue is important! I hear you. It is also important to show readers exactly how something is communicated. Think: what emotion is behind this dialogue? What picture do I want to paint? This is where synonyms come in handy. To help you get started, we compiled a list of alternatives to the dreaded “said.” With this list, you are sure to find a perfect fit for every “said” in your writing.”http://xulonpressblog.com/ask-editor/writing-tips/141-synonyms-for-said/
BRB, going out back to barf for the rest of time.
Spooky, Scary Dead Words
The idea behind ‘dead’ words is that some words have been overused to the point of losing all meaning. I am not denying that this happens. I lived through the 2000s, and even eleven years later I still internally cringe whenever I see the words ‘epic’ or ‘legendary.’ Like, every time my husband mentions the Epic Games Store I take ten points of psychic damage, and it’s been over a decade since that was everyone’s go-to adjective for anything even remotely interesting or funny. It’s why popular slang is constantly evolving. Eventually, society at large gets tired of hearing it.
But are those words dead? Can any word actually be used and overused to the point where it should never be used again? I mean, surely my tone is coming through the words and you understand my point of view is ‘no, and furthermore that’s a stupid idea to even put energy into.’ The important thing with using any word is context.
Another word that gets tossed around as dead is ‘very.’ This one has far more merit than ‘said,’ for reasons we’ll get to in a second. At a certain level of writing you’ll realize that for every ‘very’ you use, you could have used a stronger adjective. ‘Very crowded’ could be ‘bustling.’ ‘Very angry’ could be ‘furious.’ You might start avoiding ‘very’ at all costs. ‘Very’ is dead.
Except it’s not, which is what you’ll realize as you advance past that level of writing. Let’s say you’re writing about a character that isn’t so smart, or eloquent, or maybe they’re a child. Their vocabulary is limited, and you’re writing in first person, or third person with a close narrative distance. Is this character really going to say something like ‘petrifying?’ Or are they going to go with ‘very scary?’
Declaring a list of ‘dead’ words you’re not allowed to use anymore is denying the very creativity that goes into creative writing.
Words You See, Words You Don’t
There are words that give a story personality. Adjectives, adverbs, nouns, pronouns, verbs. Writing and editing creatively are all about choosing the correct words that will tell your story the way you want it to be told.
Daddy said ‘run,’ so I did. Didn’t know where. Didn’t care, neither. I ran ‘til my feet hurt from slapping the pavement. Even when pulling air in hurt, I didn’t stop. Not ‘til I hit the woods.
When father said ‘run,’ it broke me from my spell. I didn’t realize my feet had begun the journey until I was well down the road. My feet, cold and bare, began to burn from every step on the road. The mere act of breathing began to feel like needles in my chest. But still I persisted, terrified to stop even as I crossed the tree line.
Same situation, two different people telling two different stories. The personality of these two different characters comes out in the words used. The words you see.
But what about the words you don’t? English is full of them. Words that are only there to help with the construction of the sentence, to make it make sense, but otherwise don’t add any flavor. Prepositions and conjunctions. The. And. A. Or. But. Even some verbs like is and be. Nobody ever complains about the overuse of these words. No one ever declares them dead. Because they’re there for utility. There’s nothing to replace ‘the’ with and you can’t stop using it or your sentences are going to look broken (unless, of course, you want them to look broken).
This misunderstanding is where a lot of these ‘said is dead’ lists are coming from. The people who write these up see ‘said’ as one of the flowers in the garden, when really it’s a support pole for the ivy.
Let’s Talk About Immersion
Anyone else who made it through the ‘epic’ period of the 2000s will remember another annoying fad that for a while seemed like it would never go away: 3D movies. If you don’t, don’t worry! They’ll probably come back around in another five to ten years or so, and they’ll suck just as much then as they did in the 2000s.
The big thing these 3D people kept pushing was immersion. It’ll be like you’re in the movie! You’ll be surrounded by the action! You’ll think you could reach right out and slap Tom Holland across his baby face because that’s how immersed you’ll be!
Even a lot of people who don’t write for a living could tell you that’s not how immersion works. Sure, you could be immersed into a 3D movie. But it wouldn’t be because of the 3D. It would be because of the story, the characters, the cinematography. A good movie will immerse a viewer whether it’s in 3D or black and white or even silent.
It’s the same with reading. Think about the last time you read something you were enjoying. Were you sitting there enjoying the typeface? The kerning? The paragraph breaks? Were you thinking, man, I love the way my eyes are jumping from word and word! And every time I turn a page I pee a little.
Of course you weren’t. When you’re reading something you enjoy you become so immersed in it you completely forget the physical act of reading. Your brain has shut that part out because a) it’s unnecessary and b) it’s so busy hallucinating what you’re reading that it doesn’t have time to register the actual book in your hands.
When writing advice books give tips on how to ‘grab’ readers and keep them interested from chapter to chapter, that’s immersion. They don’t talk specifically about how to keep a reader immersed the entire way through because that’s just, like, the rest of the advice in the book. Write well and your readers will forget that they’re sitting on the couch with a book in their hand.
Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to break immersion. An incorrect, easily refuted fact. A misspelling or a grammar error. Even something simple like a poor choice of words can pull the reader out of the story. Mistakes remind readers of reality.
Said Shouldn’t Say a Thing
Put it all together and here’s the tea:
‘Said’ is a supporting word that should remain invisible, and if you keep replacing it with these fancy synonyms you’re going to break immersion and drive your readers away.
How to use ‘Said’ Synonyms Properly
Because of course you can. As I said above, no word should be considered ‘dead’ or ‘off limits’ (unless we’re talking about hateful slurs). They need to be used surgically. Remember, every time you use a different dialogue tag when ‘said’ could have been used, you are drawing attention to that word. There had better be a good reason for it.
I’ve looked through the novel I’m working on to find examples of using words other than ‘said,’ and I’m finding I usually only use them when I want to directly describe the nature of the characters voice. ‘She squeaked.’ ‘He growled.’ ‘They screamed,’ to some extent, and that I use because the only thing I hate more than avoiding ‘said’ for bizarre and indescribable reasons is the exclamation point. It’s just so…tacky.
You can also use it to specifically draw attention to the moment. A whispered proclamation of love is going to stand out and have more punch if it’s surrounded by a bunch of saids instead of ‘he sang,’ ‘she burped,’ ‘they giggled.’
Also: humor. Because something like
“I would never lie to you!” he lied.
is never not funny.
So, If I’m Stuck Using ‘Said,’ How Do I Describe How My Characters Are Speaking?
I mean…just do that?
I’m sorry, I hate ‘said is dead’ so much it makes me kind of shitty. Look, here’s some more examples.
“What am I supposed to do about it?” he roared.
“Why should I know?” she remarked.
Red climbed up his face so fast she thought he might stroke out. He stood up, hands now balled tight, and belted, “Oh, sure! Now you don’t know everything. Now you’re just some innocent bystander who doesn’t know shit about fuck!”
She watched him, standing in the middle of the room and desperate for something to hit, and waited until his panting had slowed.
“Done?” she inquired.
“What am I supposed to do about it?” His fists were opening and closing rapidly, and there was a clench to his jaw she knew too well.
Using all her strength to keep her tone level, she asked, “Why should I know?”
Red climbed up his face so fast she thought he might stroke out. He stood up, hands now balled tight, every bit of him breaking under the strain of his pointless anger.
“Oh, sure! Now you don’t know everything. Now you’re just some innocent bystander who doesn’t know shit about fuck!”
She watched him, standing in the middle of the room and desperate for something to hit, and waited until his panting had slowed.
If you’re describing your characters well enough as the scene progresses, using descriptive dialogue tags are redundant. Everything the reader needs to know about how your character said something should be apparent from their words and their actions in the scene.
That Doesn’t Make ‘Said’ Completely Useless
In fact, ‘said’ has a very distinct purpose: making your readers pause.
If you’re doing it right, your reader isn’t really registering the word ‘said.’ They’re internalizing it, along with whoever is speaking and whatever actions are going on, to create the scene in their head. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely lost. They still read the word, and that takes time. Just a split-second, but that creates a natural pause in the narrative that you can use to your advantage. Take a look at this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, what I am about to propose is nothing short of sedition, and treason. If there’s any part left of this government you feel some loyalty to, I suggest you leave now, because once I reveal even the basics of the plan there is no going back. Any takers? No? Glad to hear it. Now that we have that settled, who here has ever dreamed of killing the emperor?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, what I am about to propose is nothing short of sedition, and treason. If there’s any part left of this government you feel some loyalty to, I suggest you leave now, because once I reveal even the basics of the plan there is no going back. Any takers? No? Glad to hear it. Now that we have that settled,” he said, running a hand over his tie, “who here has ever dreamed of killing the emperor?”
That one little pause and suddenly that last line punches the reader in the face. That pause tells them that whatever he’s about to propose is going to be big. And even if they already figured that, it gives them time to prepare. It’s a signal – hey, this is important. Instead of just rolling right into the sentence without the pause, which makes it feel unimportant and deflated.
Because ‘said’ makes the reader pause, there will be times when you won’t want to use dialogue tags at all. If you have two characters in a heated argument, snapping back and forth at each other, do you really want to slow that down? Just be sure readers can understand who is talking. This technique works best for two people. Three people could maybe work, as long as each person talking has a distinct opinion or voice.
Most of These Pins Look Like They’re for Grade School Teachers
There’s a lot of cutesy art and bright colors, so I think a lot of these ‘said is dead’ and ‘dead word’ lists might actually be to get little kids to stop relying on the same set of fifteen words and broaden their vocabulary. The problem is that’s not entirely clear and some of them, like the one I linked above, obviously is directed at adults trying to be better with their creative writing.
To sum up: if you are a nine-year-old and your teacher tells you you’re not allowed to use the word ‘awesome’ anymore, that is valid and you need to shut up and listen to your teacher for five God damned minutes. You don’t understand now, but in as little as four or five years you’re going to start hearing things about how littler your teachers are paid or appreciated and how some of them are constantly inches away from a complete and utter mental breakdown where they use glitter sticks as war paint and start swinging from the rafters of the local Costco, like, that’s where they live, and you’re going to think back to that day in third grade where you used the word ‘awesome’ eighteen times in half an hour to describe everything from the solar system to little Jeremy’s knee scab and you looked up at Mr. Buttersfield to see his left eye twitching like it was trying to communicate in Morse Code and you’re going to wonder if you were part of the reason why he disappeared into the woods three years ago, never to be seen again. And you are.
But if you’re an adult: said is not dead. It never was. Also, remember reading old Hardy Boys novels and getting to a line where one of them ‘ejaculated’ something and giggling for the next three pages? What if ‘thundered’ or ‘exclaimed’ turns into gross porn slang in fifty years? Do you really want to take the risk of using future porn slang?