Said Is Dead

In my early childhood, I had a teacher with a poster of various “Writing Rules” posted on the wall.  At the top of the list was this: “Said is Dead”.  I don’t remember which teacher, school, class, year, how old I was, or what the other rules were, only this one rule, which could be an indication of a poor teacher or maybe just the impact this rule made in my life.  I’d go with the latter, except I’m also leaning towards the fact it was the only rule that rhymed and there was a pretty picture of a tombstone that accompanied it, the epitaph read: RIP Said.

Flare for the dramatic much, teach?

Regardless, this particular rule did greatly impact my writing from then on.  The message in its macabre image was simple: don’t use “said”.  Afterall, the poster assured us bright-eyed, impressionable young children, there are a plethora of words near synonymous with “said” that you can use.  Ever since that class, that teacher, in that time otherwise long forgot, I was overly conscious of the word “said”, oft times avoiding it like the plague, though on rare occasion, resolve crumbling, I would give in because no other dialogue tag really fit and feel incredibly guilty about it.  It was awful, I’d bawl on the couch and eat buckets of ice cream for weeks on end.

Okay, maybe that’s just a typical after-writing event.

Anyhow, last month, the 20th to be exact, Elmore Leonard passed away.  I’m not sure about you, but I was utterly devastated when I got the news.  Leonard gave us such greats as Get Shorty, Be Cool, 3:10 to Yuma, and my personal favorite, the good Marshall Raylan Givens, of Justified fame (ie. my favorite show ever, period).

Leonard wrote for the New York Times his now infamous “10 Rules of Writing”, which are very straight forward and an excellent read for any aspiring writer (or even better, aspiring editors).  It’s apparently become the essential guide for spotting good writing, as I’ve seen the rules mentioned here and there by others, apparently pilfering Leonard’s work.  Rules such as: 1) Never open a book with weather and 2) Avoid prologues.  Rule number 3 on this handy-dandy list reads: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Imagine me reading this, traumatized in childhood by the death of this incredibly useful word “said”.  Murdered, it would seem from that teacher’s depiction, by erstwhile writers that beat it into an early grave.  Yet, according to Leonard, said was, in fact, alive and well, living in the Florida Keys most likely, wearing old Hawaiian patterned shirts, sipping Mai Tais, and still the only go to guy for appropriate dialogue tagging.

Paradigm totally shifted.

Okay, admittedly, I’d started using said a tad more liberally since reading that “said is dead” rule.  I’d seen other writers doing it and caved to peer pressure.  You know how it goes:

“But everyone says using this word is bad…”

“Oh come on, just this once, no one’ll notice, and what could it hurt if just one character in your story ‘said’ something.  It’ll be fun.”

“I don’t know…”

More and more I’ve been seeing this adage popping up all over how-to-write sites and such: never use anything except said.  Maybe I’m just noticing it more, or maybe it’s a new phase in writing.  Not sure.  But it does beg the question: who’s right?  Should said be dead and buried?  Or should said be the only dialogue tag in existence, and grumbled, muttered, whispered, so on and so forth, brutally sacrificed in a  mass killing spree of would be conversational marking verbs?

After much debate, research, and cycling through the evidence, I’ve reached this conclusion: They’re both right.

How could that be?  Writing rules are set in stone aren’t they?  And who knows what makes good writing better than a great writer like Elmore Leonard?

Let’s not forget the real judges of word choice: style, mood, and voice.

Leonard wrote in a very particular style.  Gritty crime novels, that were fast-paced, tongue in cheek, and designed to keep you on the edge of your chair.  He wanted to create a particular mood with every chapter, scene, sentence.  He chose words that kept the story going, and going at a heart pumping pace.  His voice was a matter-of-fact with a slight swagger.  That’s what made his stories so well-liked and so addicting; the style, mood, and voice that his word choices created.  His rules might apply to your writing if you’re looking to mimic that atmosphere, or build a similar one, but not everyone likes that type of story and not every story works with those rules.

As with any purported rules of writing, no matter the source, you must always take them with a grain of salt.  You have to understand all of the elements of writing in order to know which rules to follow when, which rules you can break and why, and how to start making your own writing rules that work for you, but probably won’t for anyone else.

Even in Leonard’s rules, he provides examples here and there, or writers who were able to break the rule effectively.  There is no hard, fast, this is how to write and do it no other way, set of writing rules.  Everything is guideline, and you dictate when to break away and try your own thing.  Writing is as much a practice of experimentation as any other art form.  Throw paint on a canvas and see what sticks.  The worse that happens?  You get a pile of paint goo and need to toss the project.  But if you’re real lucky, and the paint hits the canvas just right, you end up with a masterpiece.

The best rule Leonard provides, the only one you should follow every times without fail, is his “11th” rule: If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.

All that matters with writing is that you draw your readers in to the story with it, and nothing in your writing kicks them out again.

Said isn’t dead, but maybe a bit overworked, so probably give him a vacation once in awhile?

  1. My goal when writing is to be able to write dialogue that doesn’t need tags, i.e. the reader would be able to identify who is speaking based on what is said. Not always achievable, but it really makes me examine how each character would speak, what they (and only they) would say in the situation, so it’s an interesting exercise in character development, if nothing else. If I’ve written a line of dialogue that might come out of the mouth of any number of characters, then the characters are probably not fully formed.

    It’s funny the “rules” we pick up–I never use adverbs. Not sure where I picked up that “rule”, but I see a version here on Leonard’s list (rule #4).

    • I took a few writing classes with a published author who has never used a single dialogue tag in any of his books (he has a fantasy series). His proudest accomplishment in it is that no one has ever once noticed, which means readers are paying more attention to the story than the actual writing. Though he said characters eat a lot in his books because it makes for easy actions for the characters to perform as they chat.

      Personally, I think you should never rule out the narrator (ie. author) as a character in the story itself. Lemony Snickets is a prime example of narrator as character in the story. It allows for a lot more experimentation, especially, the comic classic, breaking of the fourth wall.

      You’re definitely right about the odd rules we pick up. I’ve been seeing the never use adverbs rule a lot lately, which I’d never heard it before when I was a more impressionable writer and less world weary. I use adverbs fairly liberally in some of my stories and have never once had a complaint.

      Honestly, the best writers will advise any writer not to take advice, that there are no real rules beyond write, and of course, read. Which I decided a long time ago would be the only rules I’d adhere to.

      Best put by Carl Sandburg: “Beware of advice — even this”

      I suggest testing out a few adverbs in one of your stories, see how you like it. Never let anyone tell you to not use a word. You’re a writer, the paper (or blank Word doc) is your playground, and words are your toys. Who is anyone in this world to take your toys away?

      Thank you for the wonderful comment! It definitely added to the post!

  2. No, I really believe adverbs are a lazy way of writing. If a reader can’t tell a character is happy or angry or hungry without me adding “happily” or “angrily” or “hungrily” I’m doing something wrong. It’s a piece of advice that really resonates with me, and I think the worst advice is to “not take any advice.” Why not benefit from the knowledge and experience of great authors? I think it’s foolish to ignore it.

    • It’s interesting how someone that claims to “never” use adverbs in their writing uses a number of them in her responses. Are you aware that “really” and “quite” are both adverbs? “Lazy way of” is a prepositional phrase modifying the verb “writing”, and thus, also counts as an adverb.

      You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, and i’m grateful of you for sharing, it’s good to get both sides of the argument, but I personally think that taking advice as solemn rule is the mark of an amateur writer that lacks knowledge of proper writing and the confidence in their own creative voice.

      I also think you either misread or misunderstood Carl Sandburg’s advice, he doesn’t say to “never” — which is, by the way, another adverb — take advice, but to “beware” of it. Meaning, take it, but do so with a grain of salt.

      Thanks once again for the response.

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