The Case Against "Just Use Said"
You’re writing along, your dialogue is zipping back and forth between your protagonist and the antagonist, the love interest, the secondary character. Somehow you’ve got to indicate who said what or you, much less the reader, will become lost and confused. There are basically two ways to pull it off.
You can couple the spoken dialogue with some kind of movement. Joe turned to Lisa, looking her straight in the eye. “I think you’re lying.” Movement to indicate the speaker is becoming more and more widely used in Twenty-First Century fiction.
Or, you can attribute the words uttered directly to the speaker. “I think you’re lying,” Joe uttered. While writers sometimes use different terms for this, we will call it an “attribution.” (You can, of course, skip using any indicator at all. But that only works when the dialogue is flowing, and then only for the fourth or fifth-odd line.)
While there may only be a couple of avenues to indicate the speaker, once you’ve decided to use an attribution, the variety is endless—nearly. A character can say, speak, whisper, or spit out the words in a myriad of ways. But as you bathe in the selections, reaching for every bit of diversity that can be applied to your literature, at some point you will run out of reasonable alternatives. Then you’ll find your characters doing ridiculous things like “querying” and “articulating.”
To avoid that pitfall, some writer from time past came up with the idea to just use said. What a stroke of genius! “Said” is a perfectly serviceable word that can be used in every dialogue, on all occasions, for each attribution. No longer did writers have to worry about which word to choose. No more did writers embarrass themselves by having their characters “prevaricate.” Never again would writers jerk their readers out of the story by “pontificating.”
Just use said caught on. It was an idea whose time had come. Writers, agents, editors, and publishers everywhere embraced just use said as their mantra. Like a snowball rolling downhill, it gathered momentum.
And for good reason. Bestsellers, even Pulitzer Prize winners, were written employing just use said. Look no further than Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, by all standards a modern classic. You won’t find Gus blathering, “’I God, Woodrow,” or Blue Duck intimating, “Watch what the coyotes have for supper.”
Now, wherever writers, editors, or agents congregate—at a conference, a retreat, a club meeting, or merely sipping coffee together at the local Barnes & Noble—just use said can be heard repeated in every corner, to the exclusion of all other considerations.
As Shakespeare once wrote, therein lies the rub.
Recently, in a piece I submitted to my critique group, one of my characters instructed another to write a letter. A critique partner marked it, replacing “instructed” with “said.”
“Was ‘instructed’ not an appropriate word?” I asked.
“No. It was fine.”
“Did it get the message across?”
“Yes. It did.”
“Did it attract attention to itself, pulling the reader away from the story?”
“No. It didn’t.”
“Then why did you mark it?”
“Because you should just use said.”
Are there no other options? Should the mantra be mindless? Has it become the writers’ Eleventh Commandment? Thou shalt have no other words to credit the speaker. (Except “asked,” which is tolerated like an ugly roommate brought along for the squirrely friend, Question.)
Eleventh commandment or no, just use said works in all cases. It may be the perfect attribution. But is it always the right attribution?
A speaker at my writers’ club meeting once told us, “Do you realize how ridiculous ‘she hissed’ sounds?” I thought about it, and he was right. If a woman sitting across from her husband at the breakfast table hears, “Pass the butter, please,” “Get it yourself,” she hissed does sound like a ridiculous response.
But if that same woman, pursued down a dark alley by a stranger, turns around with a knife in her hand, “Stay away or I’ll kill you,” she hissed sounds reasonable to me. More than reasonable, it sounds right. Would “Stay away or I’ll kill you,” she said be better?
Writers argue, just use said covers all the bases. It fits right in, unobserved, never yanking the reader out of the story. That’s very true. I can see where writers love it. It is invisible.
But it is also bland. And lifeless. While just use said may not take away from the story, neither does it add anything, most notably to characterization.
Pick up a novel by my favorite author, Bernard Cornwell. If you are unfamiliar with him, he writes historical action-adventure. And his characters frequently growl, and snarl, and hiss. You know what I discovered? I liked it. So do a lot of others. He is a multiple bestseller, top writer in the genre.
Sure the Saxon Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg or Major Richard Sharpe of the Royal Green Rifles could just use said when delivering their words. But that would deprive them of a captivating and entertaining means of displaying their character. When Sharpe growls or Uhtred snarls, what are they really doing? Like a snake shaking its rattle, they are telling the other characters, “I’m dangerous. Watch your step.” Very effective. And fun.
Don’t misunderstand me. Just use said remains a convenient, reliable, useful standard for almost any attribution. But it’s not written in stone. Writing, after all, is creative. If you find other words more useful, more appropriate, use them. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Don’t get caught up in the mantra and let just use said suck the fun out of your writing.