You’ll see posts with hundreds of synonyms to use instead of the dread said. The same day you see posts advocating for its exclusive use. What’s a writer to do?
Said (or says, depending on your tense) is the single most precise word to use in your dialogue tag. In fact, it functions almost as a punctuation mark, because the reader simply won’t see it. Any other word you chose to replace it will not be able to achieve the same effect.
In addition, switching to primarily using said in your writing will help enormously with showing rather than telling. Restricting yourself from using synonyms for said forces you to show the tones of the conversation without using the crutch of telling the reader how they are speaking.
The argument against said is that it is boring to use the same word over and over again. Which is absolutely true. Using the word said in the same way over and over again is tedious at best.
However, the problem is not with the word said itself. Look at this conversation:
“Good morning,” said Bob.
“How are you?” said Alex.
“I’m fine. How are you?” Bob said.
Ugh. No one wants to read that. Beyond the dull topic I chose (conflict in dialogue is a post for another time), the repetition of the words and the rhythm of the words is enough to put any reader to sleep. Now switch out said for synonyms:
“Good morning,” mumbled Bob.
“How are you?” inquired Alex.
“I’m fine. How are you?” drawled Bob.
This does give more information, but not the whole picture. And it tells us the information, rather then letting us read between the lines.
“Good morning,” Bob mumbled sleepily.
“How are you?” Alex inquired cheerfully.
“I’m fine. How are you?” Bob drawled sarcastically.
Adding adverbs here not only is a crutch used to tell the audience some more information, but it doesn’t add to the dialogue. It still has the repetitive rhythm that puts us to sleep.
The trick is not to replace said or use adverbs to bedazzle your attributions but to intersperse your dialogue tags with actions or description, or even leave them out altogether if it is clear who is talking at that moment.
“Good morning,” Bob said and shuffled over to the break room table, collapsing into a chair and slumping until his head rested on table.
Alex didn’t bother to hide his smile. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Bob said, muffled by his arms. He raised his head, and if looks could kill, Alex wouldn’t have to worry about the meeting later that morning. “How are you?”
Now we have the same dialogue, but we know the setting, something about each of our characters, the relationship between them, and their moods, in addition to being able to picture how the characters are speaking. All without telling the reading anything. It’s also much more natural and as some conflict is present more interesting to read.
This is not to say that those synonym posts aren’t extremely useful. Sometimes throwing in one grumbled or gargled is exactly what you need to spark some life in your dialogue—but please not laughed or cackled, smirked or smiled. When is the last time you heard someone smirk a word? Have you ever tried to laugh words?
The next time you’re editing or writing your dialogue, don’t shy away from the word said. It exists for a reason; if you’re replacing it, make sure it’s in a way to create powerful impact, not because you don’t know how else to convey your characters moods and tones. Focusing on your characters’ actions and occasionally skipping a dialogue tag for a line when it is clear who is talking can make your dialogue scenes more effective and engaging.
How do you attribute dialogue in your writing?