I’m going to be using my regular GHB slot this year to run a series of posts on tips for young writers – because I know lots of you out there are budding writers and might like a bit of advice!! Sometimes the posts will be just me and my ideas about things like writing good characters or good descriptions, and sometimes they will be interviews with other writers asking for ideas and tips (which I will be just as interested in as you, because as a writer, however old you are, you can NEVER have too much advice). I’m hoping you’ll all give some of your own tips and advice and experiences (as well as questions!) in the comments at the end, because there’s nothing quite like sharing thoughts with other writers who are struggling with the same things as you. (And all writers struggle – no one gets it right all the time or finds it easy all the time!)
Today, I’m going to look at something that’s very simple and very basic to all writing: the word ‘said’. We use it loads, as writers, because most stories have characters, and generally characters talk to each other. Using ‘he said’ or ‘said Jane’ is the simplest way you can tell someone that your character is talking. In cartoons, of course, you don’t have to worry about it – what people say is all in a speech bubble. And in a way, that’s what ‘said’ does. It tells you, ‘this bit’s in a speech bubble’ – and that’s the end of it.
Sometimes, as you get older and better at writing,’said’ starts to seem a little tame. A bit boring. A bit too simple. Teachers, especially, can encourage you to use different words, show off a bit, show how clever you are. Why not use ‘gasped’? How about ‘shouted’? Maybe you could use ‘argued’, ‘replied’, ‘groaned’, ‘ordered’?
When I was about 10 or 11, I discovered the Biggles books, by Capt. W.E. Johns. (If you like old-fashioned adventure stories with dastardly villains, brave young fighter pilots and lots of narrow escapes, you might like to try them.) Biggles and his mates hardly ever simply ‘say’ anything. They ‘question’, ‘exclaim’, ‘put in’, ‘argue’, ‘admit’, or ‘agree’. Often they do it with an adverb too – they ‘retort angrily’ or ‘reply grimly’. At the time, I thought this was incredibly clever and sophisticated. I made a whole list of the different alternatives to ‘said’ that I found in Biggles. They included things like ‘blustered’, ‘promise’, ‘answered’, ‘decided’, ‘sighed’, ‘invited’, ‘pressed’, ‘protested’, ‘whispered’, ‘muttered’, ‘returned’, ‘frowned’, ‘snapped’, ‘declared’. And then I made another list, of the ways people could do all these different kinds of saying. Like ‘grimly’, ‘sadly’, ‘blusteringly’, loudly’, ‘morosely’, ‘brusquely’, ‘slowly’, ‘heartily’, ‘hoarsely’, ‘happily’, ‘pensively’. Then I consulted that list every time I wrote a story. From then on, for about a year, no one in any of my stories ever ‘said’ anything. I thought my new stories were amazing. And I was right – but not in a very good way!
Here’s an example.
“I think we should go this way,” ordered Ben happily.
“Why do you get to decide?” yelled Amelia.
“I’m oldest,” muttered Ben grimly.
“That’s just not fair,” retorted Amelia boldly.
What do you think? Personally I think both of the characters sound quite mad. How can you order someone happily? And why is Amelia suddenly yelling? It’s also a bit strange that Ben mutters anything after she’s yelled at him, never mind grimly!
But even if we mended those problems, and used alternatives to said that weren’t a bit random, it’s still not great. Here’s an extract from Biggles itself.
“Which way did he go?” asked Biggles tersely.
Ginger pointed. “That way. He’s got a bar of gold with him.”
“Poor chap,” said Biggles sympathetically. “A precious lot of good that will do him out there.”
“Who on earth can it be?” asked Ginger wonderingly.
“I know who he is,” put in the Skipper, surprisingly.
Biggles spun round, “You know!” he exclaimed.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these alternatives to ‘said’ (although ‘asked wonderingly’ is a bit of a repetition) but having them one after the other like this is a bit like being prodded in the arm again and again and again. Pay attention! Pay attention! Pay attention!
Have a look at one of your favourite fiction books, and find a bit where there’s a conversation, like this. See what the writer’s used, and compare it to this Biggles extract. Unless your favourite writer is W.E. Johns, I’m guessing there are more uses of ‘said’ and far fewer unusual alternatives.
It’s good to experiment and try new things, and some of these alternatives to ‘said’ are really useful. They can give a bit of extra colour and make what’s being said stronger, more vivid. Saying ‘he gasped’ gives us the equivalent of a cartoon speech bubble that’s all spiky, with stars and exclamation marks inside it, coming out of a very shocked face. It makes that moment much more dramatic.
Imagine a cartoon where every single speech bubble was spiky, or full of exclamation marks, or square with a lightning fork tail. It would be so full of high emotion, it would be exhausting to read. And after a while you’d stop even noticing the exclamation marks and then when something really dramatic happened, there would be no way to tell it was different from the rest.
And there’s another thing that very elaborate, decorated, dramatic speech bubbles do. They make you look at the speech bubble, and not the words inside.
Really good writing is about telling a story so that your reader gets lost in the story. So that they just hear the voices of your characters – like words inside ordinary boring cartoon speech bubbles. Because each speech bubble is almost always the same, it’s something readers don’t focus on, they just read the words inside, knowing that they are speech. Using ‘said’ has the same effect. Readers start to ignore it. It’s just the way we know someone’s speaking.
If you mostly use ‘said’, then something interesting happens when you don’t use it, when you use ‘screamed’ instead. It brings your reader up short. It shocks them. It tells them that this speech is different. It adds to the drama.
So it seems there’s a lot to be said for that humble ‘said’ word, after all.
And, so, finally, here’s the tip: don’t be afraid to use ‘said’. Use it most of the time. Be really choosy about when and where and why you replace it with another word. And if your teacher asks you whether you could use an alternative – smile nicely and refer them to this blog.
(And don’t forget to add your own comments and questions below!)
C.J. Busby writes fantasy adventures for ages 8-12. She has run writing sessions for young writers all over the country at festivals and schools. Her most recent book, The Amber Crown, was published in 2015 by Templar.
For more information see her website