Fiction writers are rightly advised to use said in dialogue and avoid redundancies or conspicuous synonyms: ‘You must,’ he insisted. ‘The hell I will!’ she shouted loudly. This sort of thing is likely to annoy readers and distract them from the story. It’s one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
Yet writers continue to riddle their stories with showy or gratuitous synonyms. It can give the impression that they’re trying too hard to enliven their text, without knowing the right and wrong ways to translate their passion for the material into something readers will appreciate, not wince at. If you’re going to thesaurify said, you’ll need a damn good reason.
Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had a good reason in his short story ‘Next Time You’ll Know Me’ (1988), which plays around with the ownership of ideas and the challenge of being original. Its narrator deliberately overwrites his account, studiously avoiding said in almost every report of speech in favour of overblown alternatives:
“You’re the apprentice here and don’t you forget it,” he proclaimed with a red face. “Don’t you go trying to be cleverer than the customer. He gets what he asks for, not what you think he wants. Who do you think you are?” he queried.
He was asking, so I told him. “I’m a writer,” I stated.
“And I’m the Oxford University Press.”
I laughed because I thought he meant me to. “No you aren’t,” I contradicted.
“That’s right,” he stressed, and stuck his red face up against mine.
Elsewhere in the twelve-page story we find advise, affirm, applaud, warned, counselled, countermanded, deduced, rebuked, inquired, dismissed, asserted, entreated, interrogated, announced, clamoured, vociferated, denied, sued, acclaimed, directed, enunciated, relished, bleated, fathomed, predicted, prognosticated, heralded, prefaced, gainsaid, and nuncupated. Nuncupated!
It is virtually impossible to read the story and not be aware of this strategy. Given Campbell’s obvious competence and the story’s self-conscious theme and manifest irony, most readers would quickly get in on the joke. But in the introduction to Waking Nightmares (1992), a collection that features the story, Campbell reports an exception:
“Next Time You’ll Know Me” can be read as some kind of response to my being sent unsolicited manuscripts. It appeared in Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil, where one of those copy-editors whom writers abhor tried to change all the narrator’s said-bookisms into “said.”
From an editorial point of view this is an understandable impulse, but it should have gone no further. Automatically changing each synonym to said broke the cardinal rule of editing, what I’ve called the Typographic Oath: First, do no harm. It’s vital to understand an author’s intent before reflexively applying a rule. (Campbell sent me the style sheet he includes with his work nowadays. I imagine it saves on stetting.)
The aversion to said so common in novice fiction-writing is mirrored by the avoidance of wrote in academia, where dialogue becomes cited research and nothing is ever written if it can be stated, related, indicated, argued, asserted, affirmed, outlined, found, revealed, noted, believed, suggested, stressed, posited, proposed, contended, claimed, explained, maintained, highlighted, emphasised, or acknowledged.
This is less of a problem in non-fiction prose because readers don’t expect to lose themselves in a story; instead they follow arguments, consider evidence, and so on. Here, words like argued and claimed can add a useful or necessary nuance. Variety can lend style and finesse to an information-heavy text. But it can also make it overworked and stodgy, grating on readers and interfering with the points being made.
Care and judgement are needed, not mechanical use of argued this, highlighted that. Not everything can be highlighted, and not everything should be argued. Some word choices don’t even make sense: I see advocate creeping into unedited scholarly writing, not in the standard sense of supporting or recommending something, but as a fancyism for argue or claim: ‘The authors advocated that their research shows…’
State is particularly popular: the academic writing I see describes authors as stating things perhaps more often than any analogous verb. Yet state is stiff and stilted, connoting (if it’s not denoting) something expressed very formally, such as a declaration. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says – yes, says! – that its files contain ‘little evidence’ of the use of state for say, but my files contain small mountains of it.
Some people might find said too informal, or suggestive of speech rather than writing unless the context shows otherwise (which it usually would). But I think said is OK here, and more natural than stated. The usage is normal in books and has long been so; the OED’s primary sense of say includes ‘in wider sense, used of an author or a book, with quoted words as object’.
In fiction, said is your best friend. Pick up any novel by an accomplished writer and scan the dialogue: it’s said, said, said all the way, with the occasional asked for questions. Ramsey Campbell’s story, where alternatives were integral, is the exception. If you find yourself reading, as I did, a published story with murmured used unselfconsciously three times on one page, and again on the next, you begin to feel that the writer isn’t paying attention. So why should you?