"Are you lost, Daddy?" I asked tenderly.
"Shut up," he explained.
The Young Immigrants by Ring Lardner

A said-bookism is a word that is used in place of the word 'said', but probably shouldn't have been. Writers are fortunate to have been gifted with one word that they rarely have to question: the all-mighty 'said'. When your characters are engaging in dialogue, they may on occasion have reason to gush or shriek or question or elaborate, but for 90% of the conversation they can simply say what they mean to say, and be done with it. The reader is so used to seeing the word 'said' that it will not become boring with overuse or distract the reader from the action. It is a free word, one that should be used liberally.

"I'm exclaiming," he exclaimed. And that's when he knew that he was in a shitty novel.

In the days of Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels, it was common to try to spice up an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative by using clever wordplay, or failing that, clever words. Or failing that, just words. The Tom Swift books became so well-known for this that the punning said-bookism has become known as the Tom Swifty. It is claimed that the term 'said bookism' comes from a mail-order booklet that aspiring writers might order, consisting of lists of vocabulary with which to empurple their prose. It is uncertain if this is true, although I am certain such lists were available in one form or another.

"Don't do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said."
-- On Writing by Stephen King

It is important to note that many segments of dialogue will not even need to use 'said'. It is often quite clear who is speaking, and there's no point in adding words that tell the reader nothing. If you do need dialogue markers, words like 'asked', 'told', and 'answered' may also be light-weight enough that they can be used without distracting the reader from the dialogue, and you can usually use them without charges of said bookism being leveled. On the flip side, it is perfectly fine to use descriptive words when they are called for, and some writers, particularly those of the literary sort, will turn said bookism into an art form. The works of Louis de Bernieres and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, gain some of their charm from the fact that what little dialogue they have is buried beneath a mountain of elaboration.

"The old soldier wagged his head, rolled his goggle-eyes, until I expected to see them slip out of their sockets; placed his dirty forefinger by the side of his broken nose; solemnly ejaculated 'Coffee!' and immediately ran off into an inner room."
-- A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins

Unfortunately, said bookism is still very much an Ism for some writers. Even more unfortunately, it is actively and explicitly taught -- and not just encouraged, but insisted upon -- in American public schools. This appears to be because some tests will give more points if a writing passage includes many different vocabulary words, and 'said' just doesn't win many points, especially if used repeatedly. This takes a toll in later years when these children start writing fanfic and/or romance novels.

As noted in Tem42's excellent writeup, said-bookisms are taught in school despite the students being forced to read books that don't interest them and don't even use any dreaded said-bookisms.

The thing is, as most avid readers will attest, the word "said" is as transparent as punctuation. We know it's there, we understand what it does, and it gets processed without requiring a lot of mental thought. By forcing unusual wording, we're drawing attention to something that should not be in the forefront. Yes, it is true that the word appears often, but so do commas, quotes, and question marks.

Once you've identified who is taking, there are several methods to make sure the reader is grounded in the conversation.

  • Every three or so turns between two characters, you can add in a "said".
  • The better way one can anchor the conversation is to add in stage business, or describing something the character is doing without informing the reader who is speaking with a "said":
    "I didn't know about the curse." Jason toyed nervously with his machete. "I'm not sure what happened to all those teenagers."
  • The best way to anchor text is to develop unique voices for all of the characters. Accents, repetative phrasing, vocabulary use -- all can be used to show who is speaking. This requires a lot of additional work and to develop consistency. An example could be Hagrid from Harry Potter. You always know when he's speaking.

The last method works best for longer stories. I tend to use stage business in short and long tales. If you're just starting out in the writing biz, this is an easy method to set yourself apart from the rest of the beginning folks.

Iron Noder 2017

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