He Said / She Says

Sunday, March 11, 2012
Bud vase and seedlings--the he said/she says
of spring. Photo | Elizabeth King Humphrey
In our house, spring has sprung. Flowers adorn the bud vases, which had stood forlorn during winter. And my kids are learning about growing things by sprouting seeds for transplanting (foreground in the photo).

Oddly, spring also seems to be bringing out some verbal sparring--an endless supply of he said/she said arguments. Then it happened to me with another editor. Not the same kind of argument, but a discussion about attribution. I'm still unresolved from my discussion. Perhaps you can weigh in?

As many writers know, when your attributions (the said/shouted/whispered/bellowed part of the dialogue) melt into the dialogue and become a seamless part of a scene, the dialogue helps to strengthen the writing.

But when a writer uses a word (or words) that might cause her reader to trip (perhaps a "she bellowed belligerently"), the writer has ever so slightly taken the reader out of the illusion being created.

In fiction, it might work to have a little belligerent bellowing and, while I don't have a ready example, some writers manage the non-said attributions beautifully. But in nonfiction, it hardly seems the place to embellish the attribution.

So, what happens if the author chooses "says" instead of "said" for a nonfiction piece?

The flower in the bud vase and the pot growing the seed remind me a little of this discussion. One (the cut flower) is grown and has happened; the seedling is growing and is active. Both are useful, but one seems bursting with liveliness and possibilities.

In your attributions, are you the type who says, said, or belligerent bellows?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor living in North Carolina...where the dogwoods have started to bloom and the azaleas are already starting to peek out from their greenery.


Sioux Roslawski said...

"I say 'said,'" she said.

Unknown said...

I bellow belligerently, and I'm not afraid to say so. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm mostly a said person and although I may sneak an occassional whisper or bellow I think the belligerence should be sensed or seen but not stated.

Muddy Kinzer said...

I used to think the "said" was so boring, and I'd try to doctor every other one up with something more exciting to shake things up a bit. But then I read Stephen King's "On Writing" and he wrote that the word "said" is something our brains don't even register. Meaning, it doesn't pull a reader out of a story because they don't even notice it. I thought that was an amazing observation, so I tried it myself while I was reading. You know what? It's true! I just skimmed right over all those "saids" without breaking contact with the story. Now, I have a new-found appreciation for the simple "said"! Short of converting to writing courtroom dramas where the dialogue between the witness and the prosecuting attorney can go on for ten pages with no saids or anything, just dialogue, I think "said" will do for me for the most part!

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