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She Said, He Said

March 7, 2021

My English teacher kept a list of alternatives to "said" on her blackboard. At the time, this seemed reasonable, but in genre fiction many speaker attributes are symbolic of amateurish writing. We don't want to sound amateurish or unprofessional, right? So what attributes should we use and when?

The following blog offers a set of guidelines--not rules--don't ever use the word rule with writers. It gets their dander up.

Why is "said" the preferred speaker attribute according to experts in the field?

Because it's invisible. Said does not intrude or jar the reader out of the story, nor does it insult the reader's intelligence.

Here's an example:

"Why are we going to Carrefour on a Saturday afternoon?" Jim asked.

What's wrong with the above sentence?

First of all, readers are intelligent beings; they will know this is a question just by reading the sentence. And if they miss that, the question mark should clue them in. Adding "Jim asked" is slightly insulting and completely unnecessary.

Let's try it again.

"Why are we going to Carrefour on a Saturday afternoon?" Jim said.

In this revision, the reader knows Jim is the speaker without noticing the "said." If the readers are men they're probably commiserating with him.

But using "said" repeatedly gets boring and stilted, you say. This is true.

Beats are a great way to liven up the dialogue, move the story along, and create images and character. Here's an example:

Jim rolled his eyes and jammed his hands into his pockets. "Why are we going to Carrefour on a Saturday afternoon?"

The beat tells readers Jim is the speaker. The beat also reiterates the suggestion in the dialogue that Jim does not like shopping or crowds.

The desire to use speaker attributes other than "said" is a powerful force, but try to resist it.

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