Saturday, 1 March 2014

Psycho Bites: That's What She Said

I asked you guys if you had any writing quibbles and you answered with a thought provoking question.

“What are your opinions on said versus other dialogue verbs? I've heard from a few places that said should be used in the majority, or even totally, because it's a word that becomes invisible to the reader. Is there any evidence on that?”

Readers will always have different sensitivities to taglines, but you’ll annoy less people by using 'said' too often than going mental on the fancy alternative verbs. My thoughts are to use exciting synonyms of ‘said’ sparingly so that they have the most effect when you do, but there's no reasons to boycott all alternatives. In my mind, ‘said’ is a device rather than a word, and research supports this idea.

We don’t look at every word when we read. Instead we make jumpy eye-movements called saccades which often leave out small words and those which are highly predictable (blue moon, apple pie). We still process those words, but we don’t necessarily make a saccade onto them. For example, ‘I pulled out my keys and put them in the toaster’ is less predictable than if I had finished the sentence with ‘lock’. In theory, you’d spend less time looking at and have a higher chance of skipping ‘lock’ than ‘toaster’. After a tagline, it’s common for ‘said’ to follow, making it very predictable when implemented in a tagline.

Frequency also affects processing of words. We take reading for granted as automatic and simple, but it’s actually a complex process which speeds up with practice. Said is very common. You’ve seen it more, your brain knows better than other words, and therefore you’ll process it much faster than less frequent words such as ‘murmur’.

But what does this all mean?

Well, combining these snippets of research together suggest ‘said’ can be breezed over and sometimes skipped entirely. Therefore, it seems the ideal conditions for using said word (pun intended, sadly) are as followed:

  • Said is perfect when you want your readers to focus on what the person is saying rather than how they are saying it. This could be either if context strongly implies the way dialogue is said or if what is being said holds far more weight which further description would only distract.

  • Said is good to use when it’s not too clear who is talking or if the paralinguistic actions are more important. Just quickly drop in the name and get back to what’s important. 

  • Said is good when there’s a fair bit of turn-taking. You need to be able to follow the source of dialogue when there are three or more talkers. There’s nothing worse than a ‘he mumbled, she screamed, he murmured’ structure when three characters are in discussion. Readers can and will assume that characters aren’t constantly talking in a monotone without being reminded every tagline.

You’ll notice that covers nearly every reason for a tagline. However, ‘said’ doesn’t tell you anything about emotion or delivery and it opens the door to ambiguity (was that sarcastic or not?). It won’t heighten the atmosphere of what’s being said at that all important moment (think of ‘Go!” Todd said’ versus ‘Go!” Todd cried’). If ‘said’ doesn’t work, then a more specific word is needed. This occurrence should be less frequent.

Think of ‘said’ as a device rather than a word. It’s not a thrilling word because it’s not supposed to be; instead you can use it as a quick name dropper or an attention diverter.

This article was inspired by you guys – click here if you have any writing queries you’d like me to delve. Leave a comment down below if you found it useful or have an opinion too.



On a quick status note I’m currently buried by work: finishing off my dissertation, applying for some fantastic career opportunities, and keeping up my freelance editing commitments. There may be fewer blog posts in the weeks to come, but I will make sure those posted are of the highest quality.