Do you remember those days in school where your teacher made you come up with all these ridiculous synonyms for said? As a fifth grade teacher, I taught my students that said was a boring word. We even had a funeral for said.
“Said is dead!” he cried.
“He is no more,” she whispered.
We had a whole funeral script written, and we did this for all the overused words, like asked, went, good, and nice. Our classroom ceiling was littered with the tombstones of forbidden words.
When I first began writing my novels, I was the queen of synonyms. Never could you claim to find one of those dead words in my books! No way! No, sir! My characters screamed, interrogated, and cheered. I was proud of my vast use of dialogue tags.
Imagine my surprise and shock when I discovered this was the mark of an amateur. Let me tell you, friends, everything we have been taught and graded on in elementary through high school is wrong! (And it isn’t your teachers’ fault, they were taught this is correct, too!)
Said is a Zombie
Writing fiction- whether a short story, novella, or novel – is a completely different beast than the works we were forced to draft in school. The truth for authors is this. Dialogue tags should be kept to a minimum, and when they must be used, simple words like said and asked are best. Why? Because they create the least amount of author intrusion.
Therefore, it is time to resurrect said and asked from the dead. But beware! You want as few of these zombies as possible roaming through your stories.
Controlling Your New Zombie Friends
The more zombies you have in your story, the more danger you are in. So how do you keep their numbers to a minimum?
Use descriptive beats. You know? Those statements around the dialogue which let you know what the speaker is doing?
Examine the two examples below. Which one draws you in and helps you understand the characters emotions?
“I understand, Father. I will abide by your wishes,” Amelia said.
Amelia twisted the napkin in her lap as she stared at the tablecloth. “I understand, Father. I will abide by your wishes.”
In both examples, Amelia is saying the exact same thing. Not a word of the dialogue has changed, but notice how the depth of understanding changes with the dialogue beat. I don’t know about you, but I for one can hear Amelia’s tone of voice and see her reserved submission.
Check out your favorite contemporary author, I bet you will find even more examples of how the author pulled you deeper into the story with the simple use of dialogue beats.
Now It’s Your Turn
Are you up for a little zombie slaying? Here is a conversation below where the zombies have taken over. Use your imagination and change the dialogue tags into dialogue beats. Share your results in the comments section.
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Jamie,” Henry said.
“Why not? What could go wrong?” Jamie asked.
“I can think of about a dozen things,” he said.
“If you are chicken, you can always head back to the car. I can do this by myself and probably quieter, too,” she said.
“But what if you get caught?” he asked.
“Me? Get caught? I don’t think you have to worry about that. Old Man Pinkerton is deaf as a bat,” she said.
“Bats aren’t deaf. They actually have amazing hearing,” he said.
“Whatever,” she said.
Happy writing! I look forward to reading your zombie slaying skills,