Sometimes “Said” Should Be Taken as Read

When I was writing my zombie–P. G. Wodehouse spoof Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, I decided to set myself the extra challenge of never using the verb “say” following direct speech. In other words, no “he said,” “she said,” etc. Instead people murmured, commented, added, opined, and employed a whole host of other methods to indicate they’d spoken.

That one can make it through a 50,000-word book without using “said” once might be considered something of a miracle—especially since when I read fiction now any repetition of “said” seems egregious. On the other hand, as a writer friend of mine put it, sometimes “said” is all the character needs to have done. The word is anodyne enough that the reader can get on with the business of concentrating on what was said and not that it was said at all.

Point very well taken. The exercise, however, provided a number of other insights that I’ve found particularly useful since:

1. It’s often not necessary to tell people that someone has just spoken something. The close quotes should do that, and the reply (assuming there is one) will affirm that sound was articulated and is being responded to.

2. Beware of juicing up your prose with adverbs. I’ve long been guilty of over-directing the reader, by telling her/him the tone of voice in which the statement is couched. It’s one thing to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he said.” It’s probably excessive coloration to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he bellowed.” And it feels like gilding the lily to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he said, thunderously.”

3. It’s easily overlooked (and done by the best writers around) but some verbs that are used as “saying” words, um, aren’t: coughed, spluttered, snorted, sniffed, etc. As a rule of thumb, if you find it hard to complete the action being described while speaking the accompanying words, then the verb you’ve used is probably inappropriate. “Bellowed” might be one of them.

4. Gesture is often a great way to break up too many “he said/she said” conversations. The following scene may be dramatic, if physiologically challenging to the lady in question: “‘I never want to see you again,’ she said, walking through the door and out of my life.” But isn’t it more dramatic as well as a great deal easier for the aggrieved party to execute if the scene develops as follows: “‘I never want to see you again.’ [New paragraph] She walked through the door and out of my life”?

Unless, of course, the door is locked.

About martinrowe

I am the co-founder and publisher at Lantern Books, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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