The Last Word on Dialog. How to write a novel–part 25

A wonderful writer (my Dad, actually) once told me, “Good reading makes hard writing.” And it’s true. In order for the words to flow smoothly, a writer has to concentrate on moving from one idea to the next, in a logical sequence, and with proper pacing while at the same time finding new and clever ways to express fairly common ideas and situations. It’s not easy. But when it all comes together, it’s oh, so rewarding.

Don't Come CloserWriting good dialog is just as hard. If you want it to be good, you have to work at it. Fortunately, there are a number of things writers can use to spot areas for improvement. There are three which plague dialog, and writers who wish to be published need to be aware of them. Treat them like warning flags: dig here!


I doubt more than one English class in a thousand ever covered said-bookisms. That’s too bad, otherwise a few bazillion people who now use them might have learned to avoid them instead. [sigh]

A said-bookism is simply a speech tag other than “said” or “asked.” (Some purists even disdain the use of “asked.” Not me!) The so-called alternatives include an array of words that attempt to describe how someone said something. They include but aren’t limited to: demanded, declared, murmured, shouted, shrieked, exclaimed, inquired, queried, replied, implied, and whispered. Among the most famous said-bookisms, absolutely guaranteed to give an editor hives, are: hissed, huffed, barked, frowned, laughed, sneered, and — my personal favorite — smirked.

SaidbookismsThe second grouping is characterized by impossibilities. Try, for example, to bark some critical bit of information. Or frown it. Or smirk it. One might concede that it’s possible to laugh something, but it likely wouldn’t be funny.

There’s nothing wrong with “said.” In fact, it becomes invisible to most readers (which is good).  Said-bookisms, on the other hand, tend to slow down the pace and, if used liberally, can ruin an otherwise good scene. They can easily become intrusive and annoying. Use them sparingly.

They are best employed when the dialog’s intent might be unclear. For instance: “Isn’t that just dandy,” he groused, or “Great! Just what I needed,” she groaned. 

Don’t just use an adverb instead!

Some writers take the easy way out. They’ll substitute an adverb <shudder> for the said-bookism. To wit:

–Said Bookism: “You think you’re so smart!” Mona hissed.
–Adverbial Tag: “You think you’re so smart!” Mona said angrily.

The solution? Write around the problem; show what’s going on: Mona shoved the display so hard it hurtled off the table and smashed against the wall. “You think you’re so smart!”

Tom Swifties — funny if intentional, disastrous if not.

No punsIt can get worse. There’s a breed of adverbial modifiers that almost make said-bookisms seem desirable. These are known as Tom Swifties, named after a popular series of YA books produced continuously since 1910, in which a phrase was linked via pun to the manner in which it was delivered. (Puns, we refined folk believe, are the lowest form of humor. The worst puns can drive some people over the edge. It’s true. I’ve seen it!)

Here are some examples culled from a 2009 New York Times competition:

“The Babe has been fired!” said Tom ruthlessly.
“I dream about a less shapely proportion,” said Lola figuratively.
“Oh, I dropped my toothpaste behind the sink,” he said, crestfallen.
“The unemployment rate has increased again,” Tom said laboriously.
“Angelina Jolie isn’t pregnant,” said Tom unexpectantly.
“I adore hamburgers,” he said with relish.
“I’m never on time,” Tom said belatedly.

The point? You don’t want readers to start laughing in the middle of your prose (or memoir) because of an ill-considered phrase.

Lastly, avoid the King Kong of wretched said-bookisms, the 500-pound gorilla squatting in the parlor: “But Mona, darling, I love you!” he ejaculated.

Next up: How much is enough?


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Last Word on Dialog. How to write a novel–part 25

  1. Karen Boyce says:

    I get your opinion that an overuse of “saidisms” can clutter up the dialogue, but from a reader’s point of view I like an occasional change from “said.” For me it makes the dialogue more interesting and gives it some emotion. Real people in conversation are at times animated, emotional, angry, etc. so why can’t fictional characters show that as well?

  2. joshlangston says:

    I love characters with emotions! But I’d rather *see* a character pouting, than have him or her “pout” some line of dialog. It’s not logical. One can’t “hiss” words that aren’t sibilant (“Get out!” she hissed. Huh?) I use said substitutes if I need to indicate specific actions without expanding the text and possibly slowing the pace: whispered, murmured, shouted, exclaimed, etc. They’re all action verbs which perform admirably. You hit the important point when you mentioned “overuse.”

  3. joshlangston says:

    I don’t mean to contradict myself here. I’ve used substitutes for said often. But in general, I think it’s better to stick with “said.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.