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One example of the plague of black-and-white thinking in the world today is the dueling extremes in advice concerning what verbs to use to tag dialogue.

For a significant part of the 20th Century, the prevailing advice was that "said is dead" — one should never use it because it's bland. Pamphlets were even handed out in English classes full of related words to use instead, known as "said books". Unfortunately, these said books were generally lists without any context, and even included completely inappropriate words like "implied" or "ejaculated". Furthermore, teachers offered little to no guidance on the usage of colorful alternatives, instead just marking stories down for using "said" and calling it a day. Needless to say, this led to a lot of people misusing various alternatives to "said", often painfully so.

Thus, in the 21st Century, there has been a severe pushback against what has come to be known with the sneering reference "said booking". Writing advice videos insist that "said" is a perfectly serviceable and invisible word... and, the implication seems to be, one should never use anything else. Every alternative, these people insist, automatically draws attention to itself and knocks the reader out of the story, the implication being that using "said" constantly won't gradually do the same. One can easily find defenses of "said" several minutes long, and not because of the presence of any nuance to these presentations. After all, nuance is so out of style.

It should be abundantly clear that I think both of these approaches to the problem of what verbs should accompany one's dialogue are poorly thought out, to say nothing of trying to dictate what amounts to a question of style. "Said booking" is easy to do poorly, leading to distracting and absurd results... but on the other hand, using only "said" is a quick ticket to repetitive beige prose. Furthermore, both of these extreme viewpoints overlook the third possibility: not using a verb at all. I'm of the opinion that all of these possibilities deserve respect and consideration from writers, both in the broader question of one's style and the narrower question of what to do with each individual line of dialogue. It troubles me that no one seems interested in trying to explain how to do this instead of expanding a two-minute PSA into six, so I'm going to take a stab at it myself.

On the topic of "said" itself, there is some degree of truth to the insistence that "said" is an invisible, punctuation-like word. It's a choice worth considering if there's nothing special about how something is being said or what the speaker is doing, but you still want to denote the speaker explicitly. It has other potential benefits as well; it's easy and effortless to use compared to the alternatives, and is ideal for children's books due to the limited vocabulary and reading comprehension of the very young.

However, too much of any one thing will call attention to itself — even punctuation, given how readily people will mock an overabundance of ellipses. Furthermore, using "said" in places where the dialogue is clearly well outside of a bland normalcy can be every bit as distracting as a misused alternative; even a children's book should consider using "whispered" and "shouted" where appropriate.

Not using a verb to describe the dialogue at all is a more difficult option than using "said". If the speaker is sufficiently obvious from context, one can simply use nothing but the quote itself; however, this can grow disorienting in excess or confusing if there are more than two people speaking, so I recommend using this only sparingly. The more potentially nuanced variation is to describe the speaker's actions or body language instead of embellishing the dialogue itself with a verb. This is a good way both to express emotion that's not obvious from the speaker's words and to keep the reader connected to the world rather than feeling as though they're reading a chat room log. Furthermore, it still denotes the speaker, and has more room for variation and expressiveness than any use of "said booking".

Even this technique can be misused, however. Saying nothing of consequence is one potential pitfall — for example, stating that Alice is looking at Bob when that's not a clear change from what she was doing before. Another form of misuse is making the descriptions too long relative to the speed of the conversation; this can make dialogue choppy or slow an action scene down. Taken to an extreme, the dialogue can seem to proceed at a severely unnatural pace in favor of the author wanting to show off in the middle of a conversation.

Furthermore, the technique can be overused. Overly frequent description of body language, especially strong body language, can lead to a sense of melodrama or distract from the dialogue itself. Lots of description of actions taken while talking can be appropriate to tense or generally active scenes, but using it for a low-key situation can make people appear antsy or distracted. Taken to excess, use of description of things other than the dialogue can even give the impression that the speakers aren't actually speaking at all. Does the writer simply like putting telepathy in quotes?

Thus, "said booking" exists as something of a middle ground between using "said" and inserting description around your dialogue... but only if it's used properly. Of the three general ways to frame dialogue, this is the hardest to do right, hence why its prior presentation was so unforgivably bad and the backlash against it is so extreme. Furthermore, if alternatives to "said" are misused, the fallout will be worse than that of misusing "said" or description. Misuse of "said" is merely dull, and misuse of description normally just distracting; misuse of "said booking" looks utterly ridiculous. The last thing a writer wants to appear to be is functionally illiterate.

The first thing a writer interested in using "said booking" must do is actually familiarize themselves with what various alternatives to "said" mean — and not just casually, but intimately. There are many subtle shades of meaning between various "near synonyms" that almost no thesaurus effectively communicates, and "near synonyms" of "said" are no exception to this. In the process of educating oneself, one should be wary of words with distracting alternative meanings (such as the infamous "ejaculated") and words that don't actually make sense to apply to direct quotes (such as "implied"). Furthermore, one shouldn't stop at "near synonyms" of "said"; broaden the search in order to get as rich a selection as possible, so you'll always have the right word for the job. If you're not entirely sure you're using the right word, don't be afraid to look at the dictionary again to verify.

The next thing one should typically do is to make sure that one chooses a word that expresses what the character is actually doing, but isn't completely obvious from context. There is no need to add "he shouted" after a cry of "Look out!" under normal circumstances, but in a stealthy situation one might need to differentiate between whether he shouted that warning, implicitly blowing his cover for the sake of the other person's safety, or merely hissed it in hopes of warning the other person without giving himself away.

The rarer, stronger, or narrower a word is, the more important it is to only use it when it's important. "Explained" is a relatively plain word, useful in a variety of situations and not prone to calling attention to itself if used properly and in moderation. "Exposited", by contrast, isn't used nearly as often, and may even send a minority of readers to the dictionary. If you're going to use it, only use it when you want to call attention to that particular shade of meaning and make the reader think about the expressed fact that the character is expositing.

Be careful of using the same word too often, though. Alternatives to "said" reach the point of distracting overuse far quicker than "said" itself. Know which words are similar enough to each other to substitute for one another, while being careful not to misuse a word in the process. If your "said booking" is highly repetitive even then, it may be a warning sign that the content of the story itself is too lacking in variation... or just an indication that you should mix in other techniques too.

If one wishes to use "said booking" heavily enough to mostly or completely avoid "said", the importance of avoiding obviousness diminishes — but not to nothingness. Using a slightly different word than one might expect will help point out important information. The importance of using alternatives correctly, knowing which words are less attention-grabbing, and varying the words one uses to avoid reader fatigue, however, are significantly magnified. Said booking is a skill; the more you intend to use it, the better you have to be at it in order to get away with it. Practice and vocabulary enrichment in terms of both breadth and depth are key.

A related maligned technique that should be mentioned here is the use of adverbs to modify either "said" or an alternative. Avoiding obviousness is even more important here; a redundant adverb, more than anything else in this essay, will prompt the reader to leave the story long enough to quip to the absent author, "Thank you, Captain Obvious." There are a two times when one might wish to consider bringing an adverb in: when no alternative to "said" will work in place of "said" paired with an adverb, and when one wishes to add a second dimension to a dialogue tag. Concerning the latter use, be careful that adding depth to the tag is in fact what you're doing; it is possible to be redundant or contradictory instead if one isn't careful.

I hope that this helps you begin to develop a multifaceted understanding of all of these tools a writer may use when narrating about, or in the immediate vicinity of, dialogue. Contrary to longstanding yet shifting tradition, there is no fight between good and evil to be found here — only favorites, applicability, and ease or difficulty of use.


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