Defending said bookisms? “Say it aint’ so!” he asseverated.

“Said bookisms” is an expression for colourful dialogue tags and beats in fiction. Instead of following dialogue with he said, she said, etc., the writer uses he demanded, she proclaimed, he hissed, etc. Showing a preference for the latter over the former is said to be a defect in one’s writing—a mark of amateurism.

But it was not always so. Sixty years ago—as my examples below show—it was common to find more colourful dialogue tags and it’s not entirely uncommon today. And I would argue that it’s still not a defect; the defect is the not the choice of words other than said, it’s the misuse of words other than said. An amateur mines the thesaurus for synonyms for said without any regard for the content of a character’s speech. He will write, for example:

“I’m feeling a little woozy,” she insisted.

Clearly, insisted is the wrong word to characterize the character’s words. Not in all cases, of course; this bit might be said by a girl to her skeptical mother. But you get the idea.

Anyway, here’s a delightful example of full-blown, hardcore said bookism use from Percival Wilde (bolded in the text below). The story is called “The Pillar of Fire,” and I believe it was originally published in the 1920s. Notice that some of the said bookisms are a little tortured: asseverated and ejaculated are painful. But others read well.

****

“Bill,” he repeated, “do you believe in mind reading?”

Bill sighed. “Well, do you believe in it?” he countered wearily.

Tony settled himself in a judicial attitude. “Yes and no,” he admitted.

“Meaning?”

“I’m a broad-minded man and I’m always open to conviction.”

“And have you ever been convicted—I mean convinced?” inquired Bill.

Tony nodded gravely. “Yes,” he admitted.

Bill nodded with equal gravity.

“Then there’s nothing more to be said,” he declared.

****

But Tony had barely begun. “Bill,” he commanded, “get your mind on this.”

“I can talk just as well in my sleep.”

“Not to me,” declared Tony emphatically. “We were discussing mind reading,” he recalled, somewhat superfluously, “and I was about to tell you I had seen examples of it.”

“Such as?”

“Well,” said Tony reflectively, “there was a chap I met some years ago who could do a very wonderful trick with three cards. He’d show you the faces before he started—one of them was a king—”

Bill interrupted. “And then he’d shuffle them clumsily, and bet you couldn’t locate it.”

****

“It was nothing but relying on an old, old maxim,” retorted Bill.

“What maxim?” demanded Tony somewhat angrily.

****

“What of that?” queried Tony.

****

“And now for a snooze,” he murmured.

****

“What happened to the mind reader?” insisted Tony.

****

“It can’t be done!” ejaculated Tony.

****

“Quite so,” drawled Bill.

****

“Don’t you see it yet?” laughed Bill.

****

“Whew!” whistled Tony.

****

“I’ll remember that,” Tony promised.

****

“Your coming will be something of a sensation,” predicted Tony.

****

“No,” said Tony reluctantly, “I was saving that for a surprise.”

****

“W-what?” stammered Tony.

****

“I understand, Bill,” he guessed, “you were afraid of making them suspicious.”

****

“Why should I lose on purpose?” he countered.

****

“Without the least difficulty,” asseverated Tony.

****

“He must have improved,” said Tony idiotically.

****

“The cards must have been marked,” he suggested.

****

“That’s all,” assented Bill.

****

There are some other gems in Wilde’s story too: clucked, ventured, snapped, asked innocently—the list goes on.

But I think you’ll have to agree that not all his said bookisms are not over the top. And the key difference between those that are and those that aren’t is that the verb in the tag fits the dialogue. Countered works when someone is countering; guessed when someone is guessing; admitted when admitting and so on. In fact, I think said after a question is out of place. Consider this example:

“What time should we meet?” she said.

Does that sound natural? One asks a question, one does not say it. I suggest that no tag should be used or asked should be used:

“What time should we meet?” she asked.

None of this comes close to iron-clad argument against the no-said-bookisms rule, but it should cause writers to pause before they follow the doctrine religiously.

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