"Said Bookisms"

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"Said Bookisms," She Growled

By Margo Lerwill

Published in the May edition of Deep Magic

Harlan Ellison saved my life.

All right, that might be a small exaggeration, but he did save me from a few needless rejections. To an aspiring writer, that feels about the same.

In 2002, the caustic, hilarious, legendary author of sci-fi and fantasy stood before a workshop full of attentive writers and asked for a show of hands from those who knew what a said bookism was. Four people (out of more than fifty) raised their hands, all of the professional, fulltime writers in the crowd. Point taken.

So what is a said bookism? Why do developing writers love them and editors hate them? Is there ever an appropriate time to use them, and if not, how does one excise them without leaving dialogue flat? Here are the answers I've compiled over the course of my quest to master the dread said bookism.

What Is A Said Bookism?

A said bookism, sometimes called simply a bookism, is any dialogue tag used in place of the word 'said.' For instance:

  • "But I like said bookisms," she whined.
  • "'Said' is so boring," he muttered.
  • "Why can't I use said bookisms?" she asked.
Yes, technically, even 'asked' is a said bookism, though editors generally don't count that one.

Among the said bookisms quoted most commonly are demanded, declared, murmured, shouted, shrieked, exclaimed, inquired, queried, replied, implied, and whispered. Among the most famous said bookisms, guaranteed to make an editor cringe, are hissed, barked, frowned, laughed, sneered, and smirked.

What's Wrong With Using A Said Bookism?

The very thing that editors love about the word 'said' is the thing that makes some writers shun it. 'Said' is unremarkable, unadorned, invisible. It blends into the background, allowing the dialogue to dominate the sentence and the reader's eye to skip along unimpeded by the writer's clever turn of phrase.

Remember that the writer's job isn't to wow the reader with beautiful prose and punchy word choice. The writer's job is to tell a story so real that the reader lives it. The action, dialogue and internal dialogue are the stars of the show. The adverbs, adjectives and said bookisms are the special effects-too much and the reader either becomes jaded or pays more attention to them than to the story.

Some writers, however, fear that using the same word over and over to tag their dialogue will make their writing boring. Editors won't realize the command of language the writer has. Nuances of meaning will be lost. The reader will not stop and feel what an evocative choice the word 'hissed' or 'smirked' was.

Reread the first five words of the last sentence. The reader will not stop. Therein lies the beauty of the simple 'said.' Because said bookisms are not 'said', they are not invisible to the modern reader's eye. Said bookisms may cause the reader to pause or stumble over the writer's word choice. The last thing the writer wants is the reader stopping and stepping out of the story for any reason, even for a second. Each time you give the reader pause, you roll the dice and risk the chance that he or she won't feel like getting back into the story. If this is an editor, and the writer loses the bet, a rejection slip is forthcoming.

Said bookisms also make characters sound melodramatic. Heroes who vow, heroines who shriek and villains who sneer all their lines are too stereotypical and over-the-top to be taken seriously. The writer is better off conveying personality and emotion through stronger dialogue and good description of supporting action.

To boot, many said bookisms are physically impossible or just plain bad. For instance:

  • "Leave me alone!" she hissed.
  • "I don't want to," he smiled.
  • "Why do you insist on pestering me?" she frowned.
  • "You won't understand, but I'll explain," he pontificated.
Remember that no one can hiss a sentence containing no 's'. Neither can anyone smile, frown, laugh, sob, or smirk a sentence. They can speak while doing one of those things, but smiling or frowning does not result in speech. I have included 'pontificate' as an example of how distorted a writer's judgement can get in the desperate effort to avoid 'said.'

A Common Argument: "But George R.R. Martin . . ."

Before we look at the appropriate use of and alternatives to said bookisms, let's look at the inevitable argument in favor of them. Many successful authors use said bookisms to one degree or another. My favorite fantasy author, George R. R. Martin, uses them occasionally. However, I am not George R.R. Martin, and neither are most writing hopefuls out there. Professional authors with established audiences have already proven their talents for storytelling. When an editor sees a said bookism in one of their manuscripts, that editor is unlikely to fear that it is just the first of many, a sign of an amateurish disdain for 'said.' When a said bookism appears in the manuscript of an unpublished writer, that's one point off in the editor's mind. How many points off do you get before they put the manuscript down? That depends on the editor. Is it worth the risk to you?

When Is It Appropriate To Use A Said Bookism?

A said bookism does come in handy when the manner in which a character is speaking is not clear from what they are saying. For instance:

  • "It's a pleasure to meet you," she said.
  • "It's a pleasure to meet you," she lied.
  • "It's a pleasure to meet you," she gushed.
However, said bookisms should be used as a rare treat. Try this exercise: get your favorite novel and find a page with lots of dialogue, then rewrite it to include said bookisms in place of every 'said.' Add a said bookism tag in two or three places with no dialogue tags at all.

Now reread the page. Chances are, this sounds pretty stilted.

Many writers, myself included, would rather use an alternative to the said bookism. I do so because, to me, no said bookism is worth the risk of losing an editor's emotional involvement in the story and a chance at publication, and because the alternatives make for stronger, clearer writing. Thus, I rarely give in to said bookism temptation and indulge myself no more than once or twice per story or chapter.

What Are The Alternatives To Said Bookisms?

There are many fixes available to a writer who has discovered said bookisms riddling a first draft. Progressing from simple to tricky, they are: changing the bookism to 'said,' cutting the dialogue tag entirely, creating a new sentence using the tag, describing an action or the scene in a way that expresses the emotion of the tag, and strengthening the dialogue so it stands on its own. Here are several examples using each alternative in turn and some familiar quotes:
  • "You, too, Brutus?" Caesar wept.
  • "You, too, Brutus?" Caesar said.
  • "You, too, Brutus?"
  • Caesar wept. "You, too, Brutus?"  
  • Caesar grasped at his torn robes with one hand, at his friend's shoulder with the other. His touch was gentle, even fatherly. "You, too, Brutus?"
  • "Brutus, most . . . faithful friend . . . , even you have joined them in betrayal?"

  • "Money-changers in my Father's house!" Jesus raged.
  • "Money-changers in my Father's house!" Jesus said.
  • "Money-changers in my Father's house!"
  • Jesus flushed with rage. "Money-changers in my Father's house!"
  • Jesus hurled the coin-laden tables down the temple steps. "Money-changers in my Father's house!"
  • "Money-changers in this holy place? How dare you turn my Father's house into a den of thieves!"

  • "Let them eat cake," Marie laughed.
  • "Let them eat cake," Marie said.
  • "Let them eat cake."
  • Marie laughed. "Let them eat cake."
  • Marie waved the issue away with the flourish of one silken sleeve. "Let them eat cake," she said and laughed.
  • "No bread in the markets for the poor? Let them eat cake."
What Alternatives Should A Writer Avoid?

First, avoid using any one alternative to said bookisms to the exclusion of the others. This can become as tedious and distracting as the bookisms themselves.

Secondly, avoid turning said bookisms into adverbial dialogue tags. For instance:
  • Said Bookism: "You think you know everything!" he barked.
  • Adverbial Tag: "You think you know everything!" he said angrily.
  • Alternative: He shoved the books across the table so hard they clattered off the other end. "You think you know everything!"  
A Little Of This, A Little Of That

Varied sentences that show rather than tell are the ultimate aim of a writer honing their craft. Don't tell the reader that the villain barked or spoke angrily; show the reader what angry means. Let the reader hear the emotion in the hero's words instead of the author's. In practice, a writer can employ all of the techniques discussed here, singly or in combination, to build vivid dialogue and scenes that call attention to story and character rather than word choice.