I was subbing last week, Spanish of all things, and the teacher I was covering for was a “floater”. That means, instead of a classroom, he has a cart for his books and bags and whatnot, and he travels from room-to-room for each period of the day. (The school is finishing a new building, and the school is growing, and it’s a temporary thing. I feel bad for the floaters though. Floating one period is one thing, but every period of every day…but, I digress.)
The first class of the day was held in a room that is the home base of an english teacher. Lots of good grammar posters around the room. The usual English classroom kinds of things.
But this was one of the posters that caught my eye.
The pictures I took aren’t great. I took them quickly with the cell phone I shouldn’t have out, taunting the students who can’t have their cell phones out, and didn’t take the time to turn off the flash or make sure the shot was good.
Here’s a little re-cap of the poster:
Title: SAID Substitutes
Caption: Often, when writing dialogue in a creative writing piece, you need to use more interesting verbs in your speaker tags than the word said. Try to use verbs that show action and emotion appropriate to the dialogue.
Example, change: “I forgot my homework,” Steve said.
to the supposedly BETTER: “I forgot my homework,” confessed Steve.
Additional example, change: “You need to read this book,” said Kathy.
to the more appropriate (assuming Kathy is clinically insane): “You need to read this book!” raved Kathy.
Other possible “better” words than said: howled, chuckled, threatened, grunted, growled, croaked, exploded, pouted, snickered, shrieked, apologized…you get the idea.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been told quite the opposite of what this poster is telling these young writers.
“Always use said,” my instructors and fellow writers have told me. “It doesn’t distract.”
The theory behind the “just said” philosophy is that dialogue tags should not disrupt the reading of the story. In fact, when we stick to “just said” the reader’s eye sort of skips over the tag, picking up just the info it needs to give (who said what is quoted) and moves on to the meat and potatoes of the action and dialogue. To tell me that someone “howled” – especially in the middle of a multi-part dialogue line – is to distract me. “Using other dialogue tags,” I’ve been told, “Should be done sparingly, with intention, and used with care. Otherwise, you look like an amateur.”
Is this one of those rules that aren’t really rules? Is the SAID Substitutes poster right?
I decided to pick several books from my “am reading” or “next to be read” shelf, and find out what published authors are doing. Here’s what I found (When I write “no attribution” I don’t mean that it is unclear who is speaking, but that there is no dialogue tag verb in the mix):
Birds of America (Lorrie Moore), pages 72-73: said Nick, no attribution (x3), he said, she said, he said, no attribution (x2) she said, he said, no attribution (x6), he said
The Stories of John Cheever (John Cheever), page 171: she said, Chester said, no attribution, Chester said, Mr. Negus said, Mrs. Negus said, Mr. Negus said, Mrs. Negus said, he said, she said, Chester said, Mrs. Negus said, she asked, Chester said, she said, Chester said
In The Middle of All This (Fred Leebron), pages 88-89: Ruben said, no attribution (x2), he said, no attribution (x2), Ruben said, no attribution, Ruben said, no attribution, Ruben said, no attribution, Ruben said, no attribution (x3), Ruben said.
Cosmopolis (Don DeLillo), pages 85-86: she said, no attribution (x3), she said, he said, no attribution (x4), she said,
Between the Assassinations (Aravind Adiga), pages 224 – 226: she said, no attribution (x2), she shouted, no attribution (x4), she grumbled, no attribution, Jayamma demanded.
So, what does all this mean? “With the exception of the Adiga book, it looks like the “use said” philosophy is winning out over the SAID Substitutes model,” the english teacher pouted. Ha! Just kidding. But it does seem to me that the substitutes for said are, in most modern writing, the exception, not the rule. For me, using anything other than SAID has to be done sparingly and with consideration to how it impacts the piece. Some of the substitute words found on that poster would cause me to STOP reading and say aloud, “What? Did Kathy really RAVE? Did Donna really GRUNT? Did Phillip really HOWL?” Those sorts of things tend to pull me out of the reading more than they add to the reading, and I have to believe other readers have the same reaction. (And, yes, I say those sorts of things out loud when I’m reading…Just ask Cami.)
I can’t say I would NEVER use a SAID Substitute, but I would consider it long and hard before I did.
Thanks for reading. Happy Writing!