Letting Life Lead
Unless your character is a Parseltongue, she doesn’t hiss.
If you want to skip the intro-babble and get right to the examples, click here.
I’m old, thus, the infamous “said-bookism” doesn’t bother me quite to the extent that it bothers editors, methinks. If the story is a good one and well-written I’ll get on the ride, but these words have fallen out of favor and I am trying not use them. You might consider doing the same.
A said-bookism is an awkward term coined to describe when a writer uses words like: lamented, exclaimed, hissed, and snorted, as dialogue tags instead of the simple said. This list includes smiled, winced, and laughed when used as tags. You can mince words but not wince them — hah! The words asked and replied have only passed acceptability by a tiny margin.
There used to be books and lists published with word smorgasbords for authors to use instead of said, asked, and replied. I remember learning dialogue with Mrs. Hutchinson in seventh grade and she was quite impressed with my tag vocabulary. Mrs. H assigned a lot of books and authors I had already read a thousand times — Greek Mythology, E.A. Poe, and Robert Frost — so she was on the top of my Bestest People Ever list.
Alas, nowadays, I get the impression that you might as well stamp “amateur” on your head and toss your own manuscript in the trash if you use them. Let me tell you. It’s a damned hard habit to break.
The good news is that the fix is easier than typing said-bookism, and the changes will leave your prose stronger not weaker. Your character can still hiss outside of the dialogue if you want. And the occasional said-bookism — like once a chapter — is a style choice.
So, how do you spot said-bookisms and what can you do about it?
Let’s examine said-bookisms and what they don’t do. I feel I want to switch movie themes and use the services of Dr. McCoy.
Our Lesson Line: “Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a mechanic!” Bones said.
“Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a mechanic!” Bones hissed.
“Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a bricklayer!” Bones cried.
“Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a engineer!” Bones lamented.
“Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a magician!” Bones emoted.
I think you get the idea. We simply replace the dialogue tag “said” with any number of words at the top of the Thesaurus list. Now that you know what to look for, don’t concern yourself with trying to remember what this type of word choice is called. Just remember to keep the dialogue tag simple, or leave it out entirely in favor of action or description. Use them if you like, but don’t use them in place of said.
I am guilty of using hissed as a tag. But, if you notice in the dialogue lines, there are no “S” sounds and Bones isn’t a snake-like creature that can do that. Now, if we have a character like Sir Hiss or Kaa the Snake, we could get away with it here and there. In fact, we might decide to change the words that Kaa speaks to have more soft “c” and “s” sounds so we didn’t have to use the tag more than once. Fun with alliteration!
I hear the lamentations. “But,” you cry, “It just means Bones is angry or annoyed not that he’s actually hissing!” Of course, that’s true. Or he could be turning into a Basilisk! The thing is, while the tag tells us Bones “hissed”, it doesn’t show us anything about his actual emotional state or what he is doing. The word is bloated and looks like it conveys a lot of meaning, but it is too easy to fall into the trap of telling the reader something, instead of showing them.
I don’t want to get all down on these words. Writers break rules all the time! Breaking the rules gives your prose flavor. Poets go out of their way to crush rules. Any e.e. cummings fans out there?
Sometimes, one of these said-bookisms can come in handy because it clears up ambiguity or gives the reader a, “Oh ho!” moment with a single word.
“Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a Gigolo!”Bones lied.
And here the reader (you hope) is thinking, “Wait…what…!?”
When you find your S-B offender, you can still keep the word if you insist. Just do not use it as a dialogue tag. It’s that simple.
Our Lesson Line: “Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not a mechanic!” Bones hissed.
Pick an emotion and show it, instead of hissing it. Taking out the “he hissed” tag will not hurt the dialogue.
What if Bones IS turning into a Basilisk? Can I use “he hissed” then?
Fine, but you’ve got to give the reader something to sink their teeth into so when they get to “hissed” they know it is justified.
There. Happy now!?
That’s it. Replace the bloated tags with richer description and actions (or just leave them out if the situation calls for it). This will lend a more natural feel and rhythm to your dialogue when you break up the chatter now and then with important, showy information. When people speak to each other, there is more to their conversation than words. Their environment, their facial expressions, what they are doing, and the actions around them all are ways to avoid having them standing in the “white room of nothingness”.
Did this lesson help you? If not, did it at least amuse you?
(40 years in the making)
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