We've all read dialogue that uses every word for said except said, as if a conversation must always be a theatrical display of both verbal acrobatics and emotional expression in order to be worth writing! Each time a character speaks, they seem to be gasping, weeping, mocking, hollering, hissing or any other number of vivid speech-action verbs.
The urge to use any other word for said but said is strong, and there are pages and pages on google results for the search term "words to use instead of said."
I admit, said feels plain compared to her cousins, such as light and airy quip, bold and saucy sass, or low and slow drawl. Naturally, I have my favourites too—like badger, lament, or whisper. While alternatives to said can absolutely make your writing more lively and expressive, I want to make the case for using said more often than not when writing dialogue tags!
Here are three great reasons to use said:
1. "Said" allows you to describe non-verbal actions without competing with them.
Communication is layered; vocal tone and language are undoubtedly vital in communication, but communication is also non-verbal.
We can have entire conversations through gestures and actions alone. We can understand the mood of a person just through their expression. The ear is finely attuned to speech just as the eye is to visual cues. When an artist draws a human face with lines just slightly off, the eye knows it, and when a character in a novel says something slightly off, the ear detects it. Natural speech leaves as much unsaid as said. People don't always say exactly what they mean. That is why it's so important to leave room to describe the non-verbal. If you are only describing what is said in your dialogue, you are only telling half the story—and you are missing an opportunity for the reader to empathize and care about your character on a deep and meaningful level.
Notice the different impact of these two examples of dialogue:
"I don't know what to do anymore," Mythia sobbed.
"I don't know what to do anymore," Mythia said. She let her head fall to her hands and crouched in on herself for comfort while sobs rocked her body.
The two examples of dialogue are similar—both impart the idea that Mythia is distressed, upset, and crying. While "sobbed" used in the dialogue tag in sentence one seems like a shortcut to impart the same information as imparted in sentence two, it doesn't impart deep emotion on its own.
The non-verbal description of sentence two allows the reader to feel what is happening, to experience emotion with Mythia, to really see in their mind's eye what she is going through and how she is communicating with her whole body.
2. "Said" can add rhythm to dialogue without being distracting.
Said is a wonderfully non-invasive dialogue tag to use when you want to add rhythm and pacing to your dialogue. Using said as a pause or a break in dialogue allows space for emotion to come through. Using said can add a beat to your dialogue without having to say "so and so paused" because it naturally adds a pause for dramatic effect.
Take, for example, these two sentences:
"I don't know what to do anymore. I feel lost," said Mythia. She let her head fall to her hands and crouched in on herself for comfort while sobs rocked her body.
I don't know what to do anymore" Mythia said. "I feel lost." She let her head fall to her hands and crouched in on herself for comfort while sobs rocked her body.
The use of said between the bits of speech adds a natural pause where the reader can feel Mythia searching for the right words to say. It also adds a pleasant rhythm to the prose through the mix of long and short sentences. It controls the pacing, and therefore the words "I feel lost" have extra impact.
Many experts and writing books advise writers to use minimal dialogue tags—even using said—but there is no doubt that a well placed "said" can add a beautiful beat to dialogue that mimics natural speech. People think while they are speaking, and sometimes people pause to find the words. I agree that dialogue done right needs few dialogue tags and that good dialogue is crystal clear on its own, but it remains a fact that using said as a dialogue tag in the middle of dialogue adds a break, a pause, in the reading that is very effective for communicating tone and adding rhythm to the sentence.
3. "Said" is delightfully invisible when reading.
I don't notice said when I read—it camouflages in prose—but I always notice the words used in place of said. I notice guffawed. I notice murmured. I notice sighed. These words are loud, and call attention to themselves. And so my advice is to only use alternate words when they are the best word to use, such as when the alternate word describes exactly what is happening, when a non-verbal description won't do the trick, or when you need to keep the pace of the conversation quick.
The lovely truth about using the word said is that it doesn't call attention to itself—it blends in, just as the owl blends in with the wood in the picture above. It feels simple and right, and allows your eye and mind to notice the more important words in the sentence. Therefore, if you use said as the default, with just a sprinkling of well placed alternative words, those alternative words will make a massive impact when they appear!
Megan is a poet and writer from Alberta. Her work has appeared in Freefall Magazine and is forthcoming in New Forum Magazine. She is part of the Freefall editorial poetry collective and thinks you should purchase the latest issue of Freefall immediately! She recently graduated with a bachelor of arts in English (Honours) with a double minor in creative writing & ancient and medieval studies. She is friends with 7 African violet plants and is convinced they love her too.