Invisible words

“Run!” he screamed.

“I am running!” she retorted.

“Then keep running!” heĀ ejaculated.

These words are called “said bookisms” – identified at the Turkey City Lexicon.

Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all-time favorite, “he ejaculated.”

I get some emails from authors who worry about using the same word over and over. If they’re using a lot of dialogue, they think that SAID SAID SAID SAID SAID jumps out from the page, so they try to throw in different words to “spice” up their work.

If you use a word, like a noun or a verb or, Thor forbid, an adjective or adverb over and over again, those stand out. “Richard ran to the hospital. As he neared the hospital, he noticed the footprints of others who had run to the hospital before him. Why were they running to the hospital? he wondered.”

(Incidentally, this is a mistake I commonly make.)

But the words that are invisible are words that we skim over, we may not even read them in our heads, they are simply there to anchor us. If we didn’t have “he said” and “Regina said” and “Algernon said” then we would lose the trail of who was talking. Other words that serve this purpose are pronouns. If you have two people, one male, one female, in a conversation, you need use their names only a few times, “he” and “she” will do fine from then on. *

If the conversation has two of the same gender, or more than two speakers, the you need to use names and pronouns, and possibly other descriptors (but be careful, this can lead to overuse that is like a said bookism, Calling a man “Carl” and then “the big man” and the “the retired fireman” and then “the half-caucasian, half-Indian with a limp” and then “the alcoholic” can be very distracting from the story.)

People can get really, really hung up on these things, and there’s no need for it. Because this is something you can fix in edits. Have someone read it, go over it yourself, see what sounds weird and forced and what flows so naturally that you don’t even see your invisible words like “he” and “she” and “said.”

* Unless the character is neither male nor female, or they are both. If you don’t want to assign them a binary gender, you can use their name all the time, but it’s difficult to do. See John Scalzi’s The God Engines for an example of this done expertly.

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