In 2001, while I was working with the Rural Voices Radio Project, I traveled to more than 40 different schools throughout eastern Kentucky to work with students using writing prompts to generate place-based writing. I was hosted by exceptional teachers, engaged students, and bright, beautiful schools.
However, one of the perennial problems I discovered in, not one or two, but in almost every single school I visited, was a deep and abiding hatred for the humble dialogue tag “he said” and “she said.” In fact, over half the schools I visited had even dedicated at least one bulletin board to advertise suitable substitutions to “said,” such as “squealed” or “queried.” In one elementary, they were having a school-wide assembly to "Kill Mr. Said." Sure enough, there was a bewildered what-have-I-done-to-you Mr. Said effigy dangling from a hangman's noose on the bulletin board as I walked into the school's front door. I witnessed teachers passing out handouts with 300 different words for “said” (300?) and I witnessed several lessons on different ways to eradicate "said" from dialogue.
For the love of all that's holy, why would teachers be doing this?
Maybe someone told them this is the way real writers write. Was killing Mr. Said some sort of educational urban myth that grew larger and larger the more people fell prey to it?
Here's Elmore Leonard, arguably one of the finest dialogue writers, on the said issue:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry the dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled,” “gasped,” “cautioned,” or “lied.”
In Janet Burroway's textbook on writing fiction, she says:
“The purpose of a dialogue tag is to make clear who is speaking, and it usually needs to do nothing else. Said is quite adequate to the purpose. People only ask, reply and occasionally add, recall, remember, or remind. But sometimes an unsure writer will strain for emphatic synonyms: she gasped, he whined, they chorused, John snarled, Mary spat. This is unnecessary and obtrusive, because although unintentional repetition makes for awkward style, the word “said” is as invisible as punctuation. When reading we’re scarcely aware of it, whereas we are forced to be aware of she wailed. If it’s clear who is speaking without any dialogue tag at all, don’t use one.
Stephen King, in On Writing, weighs in:
The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said. If you want to see this put stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution. That looks damned snide on the page, but I’m speaking with complete sincerity. McMurtry has allowed few adverbial dandelions to grow on his lawn. He believes in he said/she said even in moments of emotional crisis. Go and do thou likewise.
In Self-Editing for Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King have this to say:
Don’t use speaker attributions as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialogue, such as he growled or she snapped. As with all other types of explanations, either they’re unnecessary (“I’m sorry,” he apologized.) or they are necessary, but should be (“Do you consider that amusing?” she whined.) What this amounts to is your using the verb “said” almost without exception. To use verbs like he grimaced, she smiled, he chortled, you brand yourself an amateur—and to stick your character with an action that is physically impossible: no one outside of hack fiction has ever been able to grimace or smile or chortle a sentence.
And finally Bill Roorbach in Writing Life Stories speaks to all of us:
“I know your high school teacher told you to vary your tag lines. But there is nothing whatever wring with repeating he said and she said over and over. Every great writer does so. He said and she said provide fine rhythms, and repeated, they fall into the background of readerly consciousness. Fancy, verb tag lines shake a reader out of his dream.”
In Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” I counted 207 lines of dialogue: 101 have no dialogue attribution, 90 lines use “said,” 14 lines use “asked,” and only two lines use one “called” and one “explained” each.
So, toss the synonyms for said handout in the recycling bin, and look to the humble Mr. Said to make your dialogue lively once again. If it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for English II.