Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice: Said is Dead

Hello readers! It’s Tuesday, which if you’re a long-time reader of this site, you know is a little unusual for a Being a Better Writer post, usually only happening on the occurrences of a holiday or a work shift taking me away on Monday.

Yesterday was the former. I hope you all made the most of it!

On a side note, has anyone else ever actually looked up what Labor Day is in celebration of? I did and was immediately surprised. If you aren’t sure why it’s a holiday in the US, take a minute and look it up!

But after you’ve perused today’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice entry! For the uninitiated, the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is a special feature here on Being a Better Writer, where we look at all the bits of easily repeated, oft-spouted, cliche writing advice that just about every writer young and old has heard time and time again. Usually these sayings are quickly spoken, easily repeatable, have alliterative appeal (or rhyme, like today’s) and are based on something a famous author or English teacher said somewhere.

Note that I said based in that last sentence. With good reason. Like many common sayings, these are phrases that have become far simpler than their original explanations and intents. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in prior entries this summer, to the detriment of those that hear and apply them.

Which is what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is all about! Each week, this feature has tackled a common cliche saying or phrase directed at writers. We dig into it: What it means, what it says, how it says it … And then look at whether or not that’s truly helpful, or whether there’s better advice out there. In some cases, even, we’ve found that a saying is actually harmful, something that in becoming short and easily repeatable has lost all meaning to the degree of being more harm than good.

So, enough preamble! Let’s get started and see if that’s true or not with today’s saying! Today, let’s talk about—

Said is dead.

Okay, first of all, what’s this even mean? Because this is one of those sayings that kind of looks weird until someone gives you the context. Which, if you’re keeping score, means we’re already off on to a bad start. Any saying that’s supposed to help authors requiring an explanation to make sense isn’t exactly glowing, in my opinion. But I digress. What is this saying going on about?

Well, let’s have a look at an excerpt from a book to give it some context, shall we? Why not Jungle, since that titanic volume has just entered the shift from Alpha to Beta! Okay, here goes.

“We did what we could to try and salvage the mission,” Jake said, turning his attention back to Lang and looking the man in the eyes. “Most of what transpired was out of our control.”

There we go. A quote from the book. Now, do you notice the presence of a word in there that relates to our saying?

Yup, it’s the dreaded “said.”

Said is a pretty common word in literature of any kind. If there’s dialogue of any kind, odds are you’re going to find “said” in there somewhere. Odds of about 100%. He said. She said. Etc etc. Most of the time, your brain won’t even notice it. As many teachers of writing will explain, the word said is like the words “the” or “and.” It’s a useful part of the language, but also one that tends to slide into the background of the mind of the reader. It’s there, it serves its purpose, and you move on.

Unless … it gets overused. Which is, I believe where the genesis of this more modern saying comes from. See, when you’re taking a writing class, or at a panel, etc, one you’ll hear fairly often is to “avoid ‘he said, she said’ dialogue.”

This bit of wisdom here? It’s a pretty good one. See, a common pitfall that new writers often fall into is ending every piece of dialogue with the tag said. So what results is something that reads a bit like this—

“Why?” he said.

“Because I had to,” she said.

“That doesn’t explain anything!” he said.

“You wouldn’t understand!” she said. “I had to!”

“But why?” he said.

“Because I was blackmailed!” she said. “It was extortion!”

“And now you’ve ruined everything,” he said. “And we’ll never see the moon.”

Okay, I’ll admit I enjoyed the ham in that example, but do you see where there’s a bit of an abundance of a certain word. As in, it’s there every line and really doesn’t need to be?

That’s the “watch out for he said, she said” dialogue that these teachers warn of. New writers are prone to making this mistake since habitually, we do associate dialogue of any kind with a tag somewhere to make it very clear to a reader who is saying what, the said tag being one of the most common. So when we sit down and start writing, the temptation to just tag every bit of dialogue with “said” can be pretty strong. And we get something like the above example.

Which is a bit laborious to read. Plus it just doesn’t flow well. With say, an early children’s book, with only a line or two of dialogue every page, it’d be fine since there’d be pictures and a child would still be learning to parse who said what. But in a book for anyone older? All those repeated instances of “said” get pretty noticeable.

Thankfully, it’s easy enough to clean. For start, most of the time a reader will keep pretty good track of things. So we can actually cut a lot of them and still have a pretty good read. So what we had above can become … this!

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I had to,” she answered.

“That doesn’t explain anything!”

“You wouldn’t understand! I had to!”

“But why?” he asked again.

“Because I was blackmailed!” she said. “It was extortion!”

“And now you’ve ruined everything,” he said. “And we’ll never see the moon.”

Okay, that’s better. See, all we did was make some minor tweaks. The first “said” we changed to “asked” because it was a question, rather than a straight statement. The second then became “answered” which flows better with the change made above.

Then we cut the next two dialogue attributions entirely. Because there are only two people talking in this conversation, so it’s fairly easy to keep track of as long as they keep speaking in turn.

The next instance against becomes asked, because well once again he’s asking, and we draw attention to it. Then we finally have a said, and another said.

It’s better. That much is easy to see. But here’s where part two of this “avoid he said, she said” dialogue comes into play. The first half of it we’ve done. We cut out a lot of the “saids” and used some other words. Or just cleaned things. But that’s the first half.

The second half of this advice is to go back and get rid of the “list” format.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that sometimes just some lines of dialogue work pretty well on their own. But after we’ve trimmed the saids? We can put in prose, bits of show, that give the readers a clearer picture of the scene. So what we had above, if we make this second pass, becomes now this—

“Why?” he asked with a heavy stare. “Why?”

“Because I had to,” she answered, her eyes refusing to meet his.

“That doesn’t explain anything!”

“You wouldn’t understand!” Her words came out in a shout even as she refused to look up. “I had to!”

“But why?” he asked again.

“Because I was blackmailed!” she said. “It was extortion!”

“And now you’ve ruined everything,” He sank back, defeated. “And we’ll never see the moon.”

Okay, admittedly it’s still not perfect. But it’s an example made up on the spur of the moment, so hey, not bad!

See, what these newest changes have done is gone from simply “someone said something” to “here’s what they looked like as they said it, or after they said it. They’re small changes overall, yes, but they make the scene come to life that much more.

Which is what the ‘avoid he said, she said” is really all about. The first bit is cleaning up text that’s overburdened with attributing tags it doesn’t really need. Then the second step is to consider “can a character do something here?” To consider how the characters look, or what they do, when they’re speaking.

The result is a bit of advice that helps a young writer flesh out dialogue in their story that could otherwise become just a back and forth of “said” like our first example.

Okay, now this is all well and good, but it’s been about “avoid he said, she said” as a saying, rather than the title “said is dead.”

And, well, that’s because “said is dead” is crap. Unmitigated horse droppings. Dragon doo-doo. Monkey excrement flung at high velocities. Take your pick: It’s trash either way.

See, “said is dead” is like the hyper aggressive version of “avoid he said, she said.” One that’s more easily remembered thanks to a catchy rhyme … but also a lot more, well, wrong. Because what it’s saying is what it means: That said is dead. You shouldn’t use it.

Purists of the phrase argue that it’s an “outdated” word we no longer need, like “and” or “the,” a word that any author that’s “decent” should avoid at all costs.

This. Is. Bad. Advice.

Let me restate this for emphasis. “Said is dead?” It. Is. Terrible. Advice. Do not follow it. Do not listen to it. Don’t bother with it. If someone at a coffee shop casually informs you that “said is dead” you can relax and rest assured that you can safely disregard everything else out of their mouth.

Why? They’re not a writer. They’re a pretentious know-it-all masquerading as one. Why? “Said is dead” is a phrase that began bouncing around, at least in its latest incarnation, only about a decade or so ago, making the rounds between self-aggrandizing literature students as the newest “look how hip we are” thing to come around.

This happens. In all circles. In writing, currently, it’s “said is dead.” The idea here being that no writer should ever use the word said, at all, ever. Period. End of story. It’s out of date. Any author that does use it is a “talentless hack” because there are so many “better” words to use.

Yeah like adverbs, which we already did a whole post on. Or meaninglessly purple prose … also something talked about on here before.

Plain and simply put, it’s a phrase parroted by a bunch of literary wannabees that use it as some sort of yardstick to impress those around them without realizing that it actually makes them look completely foolish to those who are actually familiar with the craft. It’s a poser statement. You know those folks that learn a term or two about something, like a hobby or a sport, and then trot out that term/fact any time they can to try and impress everyone else with how knowledgeable they are? Only to look pretty dumb when someone actually involved shows up?

Yeah, that’s “said is dead.” In a nutshell. The phrase is dumb. As advice it’s horrid. Not only is it just wrong, but anyone who attempts to actually follow it and cut all instances of said is going to end up with a purply overblown walls of text everywhere.

Worse, it doesn’t even attempt to offer the same level of insight “avoid he said, she said” does. “He said, she said” is all about trimming out extraneous words and putting in descriptions or nice clean breaks. “Said is dead,” on the other hand, is just about cutting a word because “it’s outdated.” It doesn’t offer replacement, just kind of hangs there like a half phrase. Because the speaker has to be able to give you a smug look.

No. Just no. No. Nothing about “said is dead” is remotely accurate. It’s not dead, but a very useful dialogue attribution tag. It can be overused, but so can any other word or phrase.

So stick with the cleaner, better phrase of advice “avoid he said, she said.” While just as simple, there’s a more concrete vein of advice given there in that we don’t want our dialogue to just be a back and forth, but that we can flesh it out or trim it accordingly.

It’s an invitation to experiment, to expand. To grow. Where “said is dead” is just a sneering knife that cuts off and offers no forward path.

So, final prognosis? “Said is dead” is a trash bit of advice. Don’t repeat it, don’t use it, and safely ignore anyone who uses it in any form of seriousness. Instead, just keep tabs on “avoid he said, she said.” It’s not as catchy, sure.

But it’s a lot more useful.

Good luck. Now let’s get writing!

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