When writing a conversation, how do you avoid overusing the dreaded “said” too many times?
Contriving conversation can be tricky. Your goal should be clarity, so the reader has a well-defined vision of who is speaking. No one likes to back track when reading a conversation, so the “said” word will inevitably happen. How to keep “said” at a minimum? Read on…
When I first decided to get serious about writing and take it up a notch from hobby to marketable novel, I did what most of us do. I bought a bunch of books about how to write books! Some of them were more helpful than others, but I’ll never forget the stickler who instructed “never use the word said”. He said it was lazy writing to rely on pointing back and forth between speakers. I was baffled. How could I write an entire novel full of spirited conversation and never write “said”? Confused, but undeterred, I gave it a shot.
The first suggested method I found was to write a character’s actions as they spoke. This is, by far, the most effective way to move the story along while people are talking. After all, most of us don’t freeze when we talk, we have to get things done. Especially with friends, family and coworkers, we chat while walking, over coffee, while driving, or thanks to speakerphone, doing just about anything. It’s also fun to write about that horribly inconvenient, worst possibly timed phone call as well. I try to not let my characters talk on the phone in the bathroom, however. Good taste and all that… But I digress.
By creating a scene of action, even something as simple as lifting a fork or frowning, you can portray an entire panorama while the characters talk back and forth. The story keeps bumping along and it helps to show how each character is responding to the information they are talking about.
Another important thing to remember, is that you need not note who is speaking each and every line of conversation. If you follow the rules of grammar, each return (or new line) will indicate a new speaker. This alone gives you a little go between without stating the speaker, especially if it’s quick, one line type, back and forth banter.
There are multiple replacement words for “said” as well. Some of my favorites are muttered and mumbled, maybe because it’s great fun to have conversations go awry, with one character or the other showing frustration. A good site to find helpful replacement words is https://letterpile.com/writing/400-Alternative-words-for-said.
Although repeating “said” over and over can get annoying, be careful when using an alternate verb, no matter how fitting. Many purists say it’s best not to substitute replacements, since readers don’t usually pay attention to “said” in the first place. In fact many grammar police argue that the word “said” effectively becomes invisible to readers.
If you do choose to use an alternative, be careful not to become too conspicuous. Substituting too many talking words can actually downgrade your writing and make it sound amateurish. To be on the safe side, many authors steer clear of using alternatives words, or use them very sparingly.
So, which is it then? Never use “said”, or never use an alternative? As with most things in life, I’ve found that striking a balance is best. Use it when needed for clarification, but don’t over use it. And be careful when replacing it. Read the conversation out loud to see if it sounds natural.
The above link to Letterpile.com offers several other solutions such as adverbs or phrases that emphasize how the person spoke, not just who was speaking. Once again, be careful when using words ending in ly as they are also on the hazard list, but that’s another blog all together.
Whatever route you decide to go when writing conversation, I wish you the best of luck. Keep it clean, make it feel real, and you can’t lose.