Ever since we took to actively writing on the internet -about three years ago now -we’ve stumbled from time to time across advise written by writers for writers. Sometimes it’s writers’ forums, sometimes memes, and lots of it has been insightful and interesting. The piece of advice that routinely flummoxes us is the one that suggests overuse of the verb ‘said’ in dialogue is monotonous.
Here’s the thing about ‘said;’ we don’t read it. It’s an invisible word. The brain is programmed to see ‘said’ and absorb it for what it is, a dialogue tag. In other words, the reader glosses over it and registers not the verb only who has spoken. The minute a writer substitutes ‘said’ for another word it needs to be purposeful, and more importantly, it needs to make sense, because the writer is now calling attention to the speaker. It might be that there’s a narrative reason for this; the scene-level conflict might be escalating, or s/he might be striving to convey a particular emotion. Even then though, we’re not sure its necessary to swap ‘said’ for another verb because appending an adverb to it should be sufficient to convey feeling. We as readers absorb that along with the speech marker.
Speaking from experience, we know we stumble over characters who grumble, speak through gritted teeth, while smiling or laughing. (Try that last one; one or the other is possible but not both at once.) We confess too, that list is only the beginning of the tip of a massive iceberg.
It might feel monotonous to write, but we are great defenders of ‘said.’ We will, therefore, go on using it, be there ever so many memes that list potential synonyms. We don’t notice it when we read, it doesn’t clutter the conversation or pull us out of the narrative, and more importantly, it makes sense.