I’m non too fond of the book I’m reading at the moment and one of the issues is the poor dialogue. I’ve seen a few instances of bad dialogue recently and I thought I would write a wee post to expand on my thoughts.
I remember when I was at school I was told by my teacher to avoid using the word said when writing speech. ‘There’s lots of excellent synonyms,’ she said (ha!), ‘So use them instead to make for more interesting reading.’
Now I agree that it can be a bit much when reading a passage which is all ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘they said’; but I also hate reading a section of text in which the author has emptied the thesaurus onto the page. For example:
‘He did what?’ Mimi exclaimed.
‘I know I could hardly believe it!’ Janey squealed.
‘I thought he’d know better.’ Shrilled Mimi.
Janey concurred, ‘I totally know what you mean.’
‘Maybe he forgot where he was?’ Hypothesised Mimi.
See what I mean? It can become distracting. Said is a word which we’re so used to seeing and hearing everywhere that it just fades into the background allowing the actual speech to shine through. I hate it when I find myself playing ‘spot the synonym’ because it is so obvious that the author is trying to avoid saying said, especially when they get creative.
But an equally annoying technique is to go to the other end of the spectrum and avoid saying who said what at all. Try reading this passage:
Charlie: ‘The dog is brown’
Ben: ‘The cat is ginger’
‘The cow is black’
‘The bird is grey’
‘The sheep is white’
‘The rabbit is spotty’
‘The dolphin is blue’
Now assuming that there are only two characters in the conversation can you tell me who mentioned the bird? No? Neither can I and I wrote it.
That’s because we have to be able to keep track of who’s talking and after a few sentences it can get a bit muddled. No one wants to have to track back through a conversation to work out who said what. In theory it should be obvious who’s talking from what’s being said but this can be hard to deduce, especially in a long passage.
The book I’m reading at the moment uses this technique and it’s driving me mad. In a story where there are frequently four or more characters in the same place it can be very hard to tell who’s said what, especially since it isn’t always clear who is in the room at the time or even whether the thing being said is current or a memory. But I have other issues with that book which no doubt I’ll cover at a later point.
The main point of this post is this: said is a good word, don’t be afraid of it. My high school teacher may well have had a very good point and there are some wonderful synonyms in our rich and varied language but none of them are quite as fit for purpose as said and I don’t see why those four letters should be judged so harshly.
Disclaimer: Yes, all dialogue is my own work. No, I don’t harbour secret ambitions of being a writer. Oh alright then, I do but I wouldn’t be writing anything featuring squealing or lists of animals.