February 13, 2010

"Said Bookisms" in Dialogue

“Said bookisms” is a term editors use. It refers to verbs that replace the word “said” in a dialogue tag.

“The accusations in this article are garbage,” Victor growled.

“Growled” is the said bookism in the above sentence. Other frequently used said bookisms are: demanded, declared, murmured, shouted, shrieked, exclaimed, inquired, queried, replied, implied, whispered, hissed, barked, frowned, laughed, sneered . . . I’m sure you can add others to the list.

Developing writers often try to replace the word “said” with a more exciting verb. But is that necessary? The answer is usually no. Overuse and misuse of said bookisms can lead to writing that sounds amateurish, like Victor growling in the sample sentence above.

Here are some questions to think about when using said bookisms in dialog tags:

1. Is the said bookism believable?
Visualize your character performing the action the tag describes. For example, the word “growled” conjures an image of an angry animal. When I read it, I imagine Victor baring his teeth like a wolf ready to attack. Using unbelievable tags can pull readers away from your dialogue and even make your writing sound silly. Avoid characters that speak while smiling, smirking, laughing, squealing, shuddering and growling.

2. Is the said bookism stronger than the dialogue?
In other words, does your character need to bawl, shriek, frown or laugh? To avoid melodramatic tags, try to strengthen your dialog so you don’t need a said bookism:

“I’ll have him arrested,” said Victor. “The accusations in this article are garbage.”

Sometimes, it’s as simple as adding punctuation:

“The accusations in this article are garbage!” said Victor.

3. Is a said bookism necessary to show how the words are spoken?
Sometimes you need to use a said bookism to give readers a clue about what a character is thinking. If you must use an alternative to “said,” then choose a word that best describes the idea to your readers:

“The accusations in this article are garbage,” Victor surmised.

Instead of

“The accusations in this article are garbage,” Victor thought.

4. Do you need a dialog tag at all?
Most of the time, you can get away with eliminating the tag altogether by showing your character in action:

Victor slammed the paper onto his desk. “The accusations in this article are garbage!”

5. Is a “said” tag sufficient?
Review what you’ve written leading up to the dialogue. If you’ve done a good job with scene setting and character development, a “said” tag should be enough:

“The accusations in this article are garbage,” Victor said.

Readers barely notice said tags in well-written manuscripts.

When you finish a manuscript, it’s a good idea to run a search of quotation marks (“) and check your dialogue tags. Whenever possible, use “said.” If you find yourself caught in a string of saids and you absolutely must use an alternative, then choose your words wisely. Use said bookisms in small doses and always with a purpose.


Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jean -

Thanks for a lesson on "said bookisms." I'd never heard that term before. I got quite a chuckle out of the visual of the monster growling.

I've always been taught that "said" disappears in the reader's mind. It's used to identify who's speaking.

As a fiction writer, an editor told me to write an action first and then follow it with dialogue.

Susan :)

Jean Fischer said...

Hi, Susan.

Thanks for stopping by. I like your tip to write an action first and then follow with dialogue.

Blessings to you, too.