Sunday, August 3, 2014

Resurrecting SAID

The new school year is almost upon us. This year, I think it's time to start a revolution.

We need to resurrect said.

See that ghost rising from the grave?
That's Said. We're bringing him back.
In classrooms all over America, teachers create posters, decorated with gravestones, memorializing the word said.

"Said is dead," they say, and urge kiddos to use other words as dialogue tags. Writing teachers plan lessons dedicated to the idea that "good writers use more interesting words than said to let us know how characters are speaking." They have funerals for said and ban the word from their classrooms.

The problem is that this is wrong.

Said is dead has become such conventional wisdom that teachers actually get upset when I've tried to suggest otherwise. Google "said is dead" and you'll get hundreds of hits for posters, lesson plans, and charts you can use in your classroom.

For a long time I figured that this was  a battle that wasn't worth fighting. Teachers I respect and admire tell their students that said is dead.  As someone who writes teacher trainings, I've found that this constantly crops up in lessons, but it's hardly the biggest fish to fry when it comes to writing instruction.

This morning I was scrolling through Pinterest and saw an example poster that a teacher might use in class, listing other words that could be used instead of said.

"Great poster!" was written in the comments.

I was filled with a white-hot rage. I decided it was time to speak out.

The Case For Said

Contemporary authors rarely use dialogue tags other than said or asked.

It's OK if you don't believe me. Go to your bookshelf and open to random pages in some of your favorite books. Likely, you will see that almost all of the dialogue tags are said or asked (or variants thereof). I just did so, and opened up To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Atonement, and Faithful Place, by Tana French. Out of thirty or so dialogue tags, two were anything other than "said" or "asked".  One was "boomed" and the other was "called."

See. This sounds silly.
None of these are necessary.
Why is this so?

The purpose of dialogue tags is to let readers know who is speaking when the situation might be ambiguous. In these cases, So-and-so said is all that's required. Our brains usually register the name of the character, but don't linger on the word said. Many teachers tell students that we shouldn't use said because it's boring, but it's not boring because our brain doesn't really notice it. It's more like punctuation. If periods and commas aren't boring, neither is said.

When we use other dialogue tags, we create sort of a hitch in the smooth reading that we want our readers to be doing. By telling students not to use said, we're forcing them to conform to rules that actually make them sound like amateur hacks.

The Case Against Exclaimed, Snuffled, Chortled, Screamed

The secondary purpose of dialogue tags is to tell readers how the words are being said. 

Ha-ha! you might be thinking. That's when we use our other, interesting dialogue tags!

Yes, true.

There's a caveat here. These should only be used if the way the character is saying the words contradicts the emphasis or meaning the reader would infer. Otherwise, most "interesting" dialogue tags are redundant or silly. Let's look at some examples.

"Let her go," he commanded.
Commanded is redundant, because "Let her go" is already a command.

"It's my birthday!" Grace exclaimed.
Again, redundant. The exclamation point implies exclaiming.

"It was all part of my plan," he snickered.
Can you really "snicker" words? Go ahead. Try it. This just sounds silly. To snicker means to "give a half-suppressed laugh." You can't snicker words. Likewise, you cannot sneer, laugh, or chuckle words.

"You stole my baby," she whispered.
Now, here's a case where you might actually use this dialogue tag. If someone's baby was stolen, you might infer that she would be wailing or screaming or crying. But she's whispering. This provides a more complete picture of what's happening in the scene, and the dialogue tag is necessary because most of us wouldn't imagine her speaking in that way.

Double whammy! Using a redundant dialogue tag
with a redundant adverb.

What we should teach instead:

If said isn't dead, what do we teach kids about dialogue instead? I think we should be teaching them three considerations: 

1) When you write dialogue, choose meaningful words that tell the reader something important. Choose punctuation carefully as well. If you choose your words and punctuation carefully, the reader should be able to hear how the character is speaking.
2) Use a dialogue tag to show the reader who is speaking. It's only necessary if the reader might be confused about who is speaking. Use said almost exclusively.
3) If the character is speaking in a way that is unexpected, then you might use a tag other than said.

Why this matters:
This might seem like something trivial to blog about at length. However, there are a few reasons why I think this is important:

First, and most importantly, we should strive to teach children things that are correct and true. It doesn't matter that funerals for the word said are fun, if we're encouraging students to write in ways that are not skillful. (Trust me, there are lots of overused words that deserve funerals.) Truth matters. It's easy to forget that in teaching, but we should all be vigilant that our kids are learning things that are critical and truthful.

Second, we undermine our credibility when we teach students things that are obviously untrue. Any child who reads a lot is going to realize that "good writers" use the word said all the time. I did by the time I was in high school. When I asked my teachers about it, they fumbled for answers and couldn't explain. I didn't see them as trustworthy anymore, and so I didn't accept feedback on my writing from them that might have actually been valid.

Third, teaching kids not to use said is indicative of a larger problem with writing instruction in general: we tell kids that we are teaching them what "good writers" do, but we are actually teaching them what "good writing students" do. We default to conventional wisdom about writing because we're not writing or reading enough ourselves. To be good writing teachers, we have to truly understand what real authors do. We have to read, write, and think if we want our students to do so. We can't just look on the internet for cute lessons, or follow a curriculum that gives "rules" for writing that are based on conventional wisdom. If we write, we'll help our students to be better writers.

Last, we just don't want this to happen:
When I was a kid, I was a zealous reader. I mean, I read a ton. I loved old-fashioned books like The Five Little Peppers, Little Women, and Little House on the Prairie. Apparently, I would read anything with "little" in the title. 

Of course, my teachers taught me that said was dead, and I tried to find other, clever dialogue tags in the books I was reading. One day, I found an unusual one that I knew was going to make my teacher proud. I added it to my writing and showed my mom my homework. She blanched.

"What's wrong?" I said.

"Honey, you just can't say that."

"Why not? It was in the book I was reading."

"Honey, we don't use the word ejaculate to mean exclaim anymore. It means something else now."

Lesson learned.

No comments: