I have just spent the last year being in and out of classrooms, and I noticed that many of the English classrooms (especially in middle school) displayed posters that provided synonyms for the word “said.” In one room I saw poster that extended horizontally over half the length of the wall, listing over 300 “synonyms” for “said,” including “drooled” and “hissed.” I had hoped that these were just wall decorations, to be pretty much ignored, but I have even seen this creep into lesson plans designed by National Writing Project participants. A Google search for “said synonyms list” returned over 13,000,000 links, so apparently a lot of people think this is a good idea.

It’s not.

Please don’t do this. Please, please, please don’t do this.

If you’re pulling your hair right now, realizing that this is the basis of a lot of your lesson plans, just take a few breaths, calm down, and I’ll explain why you shouldn’t do this.

The Rules of Dialogue Attribution

There are only really three rules for dialogue attribution:

  1. Use it only as needed—just enough to help your readers keep track of who’s speaking.
  2. If you must use it, then just use “said.”
  3. The noun or pronoun goes first (“he said,” not “said he”).

It’s not just me who says this, however. Plenty of writers (and writing instructors) will tell you this. In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we are told that:

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled,” “gasped,” “cautioned,” “lied.” I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asservated,” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary. (23)

The point is that your readers should focus on what your characters are saying, not on what you are saying. Similarly, in On Writing, Stephen King says:

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said. If you want to see this put stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution. That looks damned snide on the page, but I’m speaking with complete sincerity.…He believes in he-said/she-said even in moments of emotional crisis (and in Larry McMurtry novels there are a lot of those). Go and do thou likewise. (127)

If Stephen King and Elmore Leonard are a little too lowbrow for you, listen to what Donald Hall has to say on the topic:

Beginning writers often explain things too much, telling us twice what we know the first time. (It is like speaking of “white snow.”) And in dialogue, it is usually better to use varieties of “say,” or to use nothing, than it is to use verbs like “growled” and “whimpered.”…In other contexts, we prefer the particular because it is more expressive, but these dialogue verbs have been overused, and if the dialogue is adequate, the verb usually overexplains what we know from the speech itself. Sometimes, we might want to know that “he whispered,” because we need the information that he was trying not be overheard. When you can, omit this information. The writer of dialogue should try to convey the speaker’s tone within his speech, and avoid the stage directions. (269)

It’s tempting to teach kids the fine art of synonym substitution and think that we have accomplished something, but really, we are giving them wrong ideas about writing, making them think that writing is nothing more than saying something simply and then relying on a thesaurus to make it sound complicated. These lessons are tempting because synonyms are, after all, pretty low-hanging fruit. What we are teaching them about dialogue attribution boils down to two simple rules: first, use it every chance you get, and second, use any word other than “said.” Hand out the thesauruses, let each kid come up with something different, and we think that we have taught them creativity as well, something which can only be nurtured but never taught.

What writers—many of them in high school and middle school and many of them publishing books that frankly, aren’t all that good—need to focus on is dialogue that is believable and identifiable. Dialogue is one of the hardest things to get right in fiction. When done right, it adds to the verisimilitude of the story; when done wrong, it jars the ears and ruins the experience of story. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird,

You should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; each one must have a self. (66)

And she agrees with me about the importance of strong dialogue, adding that “dialogue is the way to nail character, so you have to work on getting the voice right (67).”

If my three rules about dialogue attribution seem stringent, they’re meant to be. Too often, we get hung up on the bells and whistles, because they’re bright and shiny and seem easy things to deal with, but they don’t have much substance. We need to focus on substance. I have seen kids go into a computer lab to write papers, and then spend twenty or thirty minutes figuring out a font, size, and color for their title, or spend the entire hour playing around with word art in Microsoft Word to do the same thing, when what they should have been focusing on is the quality of their writing. (Which is why I believe that teaching MLA style in sixth grade or sooner is a good thing: Times, 12 point, double space. Now get writing.) Some teachers let them do this, believing that it fosters creativity, but this is an English class, not an art class. Students’ creativity should be expressed through their writing, not through the bells and whistles they’re playing around with.

The Real Issue with Dialogue Attribution, with Examples

The real issue we need to teach when it comes to dialogue attribution is not how to dress it up, but how often to use it. I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to writing fiction (although I’ve had a couple of pieces published), but I’m going to come up with a short verbal exchange between two characters to show how to put this into practice. Consider the following exchange:

Linda glared at him, her hands firmly on her hips. “Where is it?” she asked.

“I don’t really know,” Phil answered, taking off his glasses and examining them.

Sounds natural enough, right? Linda is asking a question, so it seems okay to use that “she asked.” Except that the question mark at the end of her question, not to mention her syntax, is already telling us that she is asking a question, so adding “she asked” is redundant. If this is a dialogue between two characters, then there really isn’t any need to say that Phil answered her question. Who else would he be talking to? It doesn’t matter whether Phil replied, responded, or answered. These words all point out the obvious and are therefore superfluous.

You could argue that asked is really a tame word, and that it is better to use a strong verb such as pleaded, begged, or demanded in its place, to tell exactly how Linda was speaking. I would agree with you (maybe) if the above two lines were the extent of your story. In reality, there should be a lot of narrative that led us to this point that gives us clues as to how this exchange is unfolding; certainly there would be a fair amount of character development that tells us something about how these characters act when in conflict.

Even without that, we can still show, through narrative, rather than tell, through description, what this exchange is like.

Linda stomped across the room until she was inches away from him. She planted her hands on her hips and glared down at him. “Where is it?”

Without looking up, Phil removed his glasses and stared at them, as if lost in thought. He sighed, stifling a yawn. “I really don’t know.”

This is not a perfect passage, but it shows what can be done without adverbs or dialogue attribution. Linda stomps and glares because she is angry; what occurred previously would explain exactly how angry she is. She also invades Phil’s personal space and towers over him in an attempt to be intimidating, and again, what had transpired before would tell us whether she is likely to be successful at it or not.

As for Phil, he clearly doesn’t view Linda as a threat, but again, whether that’s because he knows she is not a threat, or because he’s not easily intimidated, or because he’s merely oblivious to the danger he’s in will be determined by what has come before in the story or what will come after. If this little exchange seems flawed, it’s because I didn’t bother to come up with all that story ahead of time. The point is that we have now doubt as to who is speaking, even without dialogue tags. It certainly wouldn’t be wrong to use “said” in the above passage; such use might actually strengthen. But it’s not necessary at all.

It takes time to teach these kinds of writing skills, and they are almost impossible to boil down into a worksheet exercise, to be given out with minimal instruction, almost as busy work, but these are the kinds of things we need to teach kids if we want to say that we are really teaching them how to write. To teach these skills, we—both teachers and students—must read a lot and write a lot, so that we have plenty of examples, both good and bad, to draw upon.

A Better Example

A couple of days after I posted this, I finished reading Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child, which is an excellent book. I’ll write a post about it soon. What I noticed is that she handles dialogue almost effortlessly. I wanted to include a long excerpt here, which would be tedious to type up, so I just scanned the page. The thumbnail is to the right. Just click on it to view full size in a new window.

Notice how little dialogue attribution is used here. Dowd allows the characters to act and address each other, so reading this passage is almost like sitting there watching them have this conversation. In fact, in the one bit of dialogue attribution she uses she also uses an adverb: “he said tonelessly.” I’ll let this go because she uses so little dialogue attribution that your ears aren’t overwhelmed by it, and given the context of the paragraph, it fits.

Works Cited

Down, Siobhan. Bog Child. New York: David Fickling-Random House, 2008.

Hall, Donald. Writing Well, 3rd ed. Boston: Little Brown, 1979.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.

Leonard, Elmore. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Illus. Joe Ciardiello. New York: William Morrow-HarperCollins, 2007.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Instruction on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor, 1994.

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