Friday, July 9, 2010

The Importance of Said and Avoiding Adverbs

Said is perhaps the only invisible word in the English language, though some people still feel that it's wrong to use it, almost like they're in danger of overusing it. I'm not sure you can overuse the word said. It's just so darn versatile.

Disclaimer: Today's entry mostly applies to story-writing. I'm not sure of how useful it will be for the following people: Script writers, news reporters, and people who write in the present tense.

What is said, exactly? It's the past tense form of saying, which is the present tense form of will say. If all this talk of tenses is screwing you up, here's a short lesson in what the heck a tense is.

You're a fool,” I said to Johnny. (Past tense.)

You're a fool,” I'm saying to Johnny. (Present tense.)

I'm going to call Johnny a fool. (Future)

Now that we know roughly how Said fits into dialogue, it's time for me to make some general observations.

When I first started writing (somewhere between the age of 7 and 15) I wasn't particularly worried about dialogue. I usually wrote about things I liked or saw in video games. My brother played a game called Command and Conquer, a military strategy game where you order your troops all over the battlefield. I enjoyed watching him play. Naturally, some of that game crept into my (usually awful) stories, despite the fact that I knew nothing of the military. I thought that tanks came from the airport (because that's what they did in C&C!) and that pistols were the weakest weapon in the world.

I'll save the rest of this story for another entry, because right now I feel like I'm doing a better job explaining why not to write things you don't know about. So lets get back to Said.

My paper-thin characters in these loosely-C&C-based stories would talk like this (recreated for teaching purposes. I would be horrified to publish things I wrote when I was 10.) Observe how I avoid the word Said after the first use.

Don't go in there,” said the Mayor.

Why not?” asked the army man angrily, “I have to put bombs in the bad guys' base.”

Because!” Roared the Mayor crossly, slamming his fist down, “it's too dangerous!"

I have to,” argued the army man, slapping the Mayor harshly, “we have to do this and then get back to the airport to get more tanks!”

We don't do a darn thing until I say so!” squawked the Mayor triumphantly. Just then, a flamethrower man came in.

The point is that there is nothing wrong with using Said every time someone speaks. In fact, sometimes you don't even need to attribute the text to anyone because there are only two characters. At some point you can trust the audience to know who's talking. But that's for another lesson, too.

Another thing you might notice is the profuse use of adverbs. I know a few people who will violently disagree with this William-rule, but give me a chance to explain before violently crushing CONTROL+W on your keyboard.

If you're ever read On Writing by Steven King you'll have heard this same rule. In fact, it's where I first heard it. However, he doesn't give much of an explanation as to why you shouldn't use adverbs, he just argues that you shouldn't.

But why would Steven King order me to do something without an explanation?” you might find yourself asking. I must point out that he does illustrate this point in the book via a handful of examples. After reading them it does seem like a world without adverbs is a better one, but I still wasn't exactly sure why.

I thought about it. For three years. During this time, I finished a story I was (slowly) writing, at which point it all became clear:

It all comes to down to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. In the book they constantly stress how important it is to not waste words. “Why?” you might ask, scratching your head, “it's not like there's a shortage of word-trees.”

STOP RIGHT THERE. If you think there's no reason to conserve word-trees then I will prove my point via a snappy example. One of these sentences wastes many words, the other says the same thing in much less time.


I leaned against the strong trunk slowly. Its unforgiving caress was rough, but not unwelcome. I looked up at the tree and saw a bird's nest stuck in amongst the branches, though it looked as if it might fall. Slowly I unpacked my sandwich, peeled back the plastic and took a bite. I chewed thoughtfully and looked out over the field. Even in the shade it was a hot day. The grassy field was completely yellow.


I sat under a tree and ate a sandwich.

It's obvious which one is which, and clearly I've exaggerated a bit, but the point is that it takes much longer to say the same thing. If you were actually writing this story, you would probably want a third option that falls somewhere between the two extremes.


I leaned against the strong trunk. slowly. Its unforgiving caress was rough, but not unwelcome. I looked up at the tree and saw a bird's nest stuck in amongst the branches, though it looked as if it might fall. Slowly I unpacked my sandwich peeled back the plastic and took a bite. I chewed thoughtfully and looked out over the field. Even in the shade it was a hot day. The grassy field was completely yellow.

Hopefully now you understand why you shouldn't waste words. Now I can talk about adverbs again. The reason I personally don't like adverbs (although I still find myself accidentally using them) it because they are either adding unnecessary weight to a sentence or showing a hole in your writing.

My wife just died,” Thomas said mournfully.

What do you take away from this sentence? Probably that Thomas is quite sad. I would certainly hope so, I heard his wife just died. Do I really need to tell the audience that he sounds mournful?

Ah-HA!” You might be saying, “you can't actually TELL that he's sad if you take away the Mournfully part!”

Perhaps you're right. But you must remember that no story is going to have a single sentence independent of the surrounding text (except maybe in the chapter titles). What we'd actually be looking at is this:

My wife just died,” said Thomas.

There was a pause.

Are you alright?” said Diana, reaching to put a hand on his shoulder. Thomas pulled away from her and walked away.

Hopefully the reader can see that Thomas is sad, without the use of adverbs or a George Lucas-style “I AM ANGRY” or “You're breaking my heart” speech.

I guess what I'm getting at is that if you want to make your characters say something happily or sadly (or even sexily), you need to make them do it in the body of the dialogue. All it takes is practice. You have several tools at your disposal that aren't adverb-shaped. For instance, body language. Other characters to interact with. Strong writing. Good characterization. Again, see the difference:

He's been called back into the service!” Mary said tearfully.

Mary burst into tears. “He's been called back into the service!”

And this time we're gonna kill him,” said Roger intensely.

And this time,” Roger was shaking with rage, “we're gonna kill him.”

I've been watching you while you slept,” said the man creepily.

A man stepped out of the shadows in the corner of the bedroom. “I've been watching you sleep,” he said.

Of course I thought about it,” Wesley said thoughtfully.

Of course I thought about it,” said Wesley, looking thoughtful.

You'll also notice that with all of these examples, I'm only using “said.” Never “roared” or “squeaked” or “bellowed."

Return on for Monday's lesson: Writing What You Know.


  1. thanks for clearing up the "said," part. I was always afraid to over use it too.
    I really am learning a lot. I have felt gun-shy since I read Stephen King.

  2. Aww, I was hoping for some of those party-game adverbs. You know,

    "I'm waiting for the doctor," he said patiently.

    "This snail race is boring," he said slowly.

    "I like cliff-jumping," she said dangerously.

    "I'm a star!" she said brightly.

    "I need a drink," he said dryly.