He Said, She Said: Enough ‘Said’

Doghouse Diaries
Image courtesy Doghouse Diaries
I’ve had enough with “said.” Way back when I was first learning journalism, an editor told me never to use anything but the word “said” or “says” when attributing a quote, as in “‘I am not a crook,’ President Nixon said.” Put another way, don’t use other verbs, such as “commented” or “opined,” which feel awkward and may not actually reflect the state of mind of the quoted person. Let the reader decide whether it’s a comment, opinion, or a simple statement of fact.

That practice may work in journalism or other forms of non-fiction, but it doesn’t work in fiction. It’s repetitive to attribute dialog to a character with the word “said,” particularly because the character’s state of mind or emotion behind the words may be important to the story. Here’s a bit of dialog to illustrate: “Unhand me, or I’ll call the gendarme,” Carrie screamed. “Not before I’ve had my way with you,” Peter snarled. Now you have a sense of the emotion. The other day, I ran into a list of 300 ways to say “said,” and the list has some good ideas and terrible ones. For example, how does one “expostulate” without looking like a moron?

There’s a better way to suggest attribution in fiction that allows you to dispense with attribution altogether. Simply describe a behavior before or after the dialog. For example:

“Unhand me, or I’ll call the gendarme!” Carrie raised her hand in terror.
Peter lifted the knife. “Not before I’ve had my way with you.”

I find this technique much crisper and rich with information. It also avoids a certain ambiguity about the meaning of “screamed” or “snarled,” which can be confusing as much as it might be helpful. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using “said” or some other verb to describe the emotional content of dialog. But an occasional “said” or one of its cousins is enough.

What’s your favorite dialog attribution technique?

2 thoughts on “He Said, She Said: Enough ‘Said’

  1. I like this advice. Your restructuring example reminds me of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction (of which I am an avid fan).


    1. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are two of America’s great writers, in my humble opinion. I love film noir!


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