What’s a “Said Bookism”?
I recently listened to Writing Excuses Season 1 Episode 35 (“Voice, Tone and Style”) and was struck by an almost sidebar conversation about never using “said bookisms” and “Tom Swifties”. I hadn’t heard of these terms before.
Their point was basically that you should write dialogue with the words said and asked but not more “exciting” words like huffed, explained, queried, exclaimed and so on. I’m sure I remember being explicitly taught to “liven up” my writing by replacing those boring old words.
I mentioned it to my family today, and my wife pointed out that children writing dialogue often end up with a structure like this:
“Where are you going?” asked Jim.
“To the ball field,” said Sam.
“Are you going to play ball?” asked Jim.
“If there’s anyone there,” said Sam.
“I went yesterday and there was no one there,” said Jim.
“I hope we can play,” said Sam.
I agree that this dialogue is terrible, and that the temptation to fix it would be to replace said and asked. I wonder now instead if the dialogue needs a little setting, a little description of what the characters look like or a feeling… and a little something worth talking about.
My Own Writing
Okay, so I was a little worried. What did my own writing look like? I took a quick look at the short story I recently posted here. I hadn’t been thinking about this, so I expected something pretty awful. I was pleasantly suprised, though: I mostly use said in my dialogue.
It didn’t hurt that there were only two people in nearly every scene. They spoke to each other, so it was pretty easy to tell who was doing the talking without having to tag them. In the scene with three people talking, here’s what I did:
“Good morning, Aunt Sarah,” Whip said as he was setting out the mugs next to the pot of oatmeal on the table. “How did you sleep?”
She smiled at him. “Very well, thank you, Whip. I feel quite rested this morning.” She sat at the table as he ladled a steaming bowl for her. She was dressed for the day already in practical cotton pants and tunic, both brown to match her husband’s. “And you? Were you able to get to sleep last night?”
Whip ran a hand through his dark, unkempt hair. “Yes, I was. I had a peaceful night, for a change.”
I only used said once, and I didn’t use any other tags to indicate who was talking. The paragraphing does that pretty much on its own, so I didn’t bother, I guess. It wasn’t conscious, so I’m not really sure.
Two Other Resources
Just in case the Writing Excuses guys were out to lunch (unlikely), I figured I’d quickly Google the concept. They were justified in their criticisms of the said bookism. Here are a couple of the more interesting articles:
If you have some thoughts you’d like to share I’d appreciate it. I’m pretty much getting feedback from blog readers and Twitter, so I’m hoping you’ll weigh in on both the topic and on my writing. Thanks!