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“Said bookisms” is a term I ran across recently when a critique partner wagged her finger at me for using them in my fiction. Also know as a “dialog tag,” a said bookism is when a writer substitutes another verb or verb phrase for the word “said” in dialog. The intent of a said bookism is to inject emotional content, emphasis, or visual and/or sound information into a piece of dialog, thereby helping to bring the interaction to life. Thus we have, “Come back!” she pleaded, “I’ll get you yet!” he huffed, or “Out of my way!” she boomed.

A variant of the said bookism is modifying “said” with an adverb or adverbial phrase: said nervously, said hopefully, said with a lump in her throat. This practice has been used a great deal in pulp fiction in an effort to pump emotion into a scene, so much so that it spawned an entire pun category, known as the Tom Swifty. (Tom Swift was the hero in a series of books for young people in the early 20th century, similar in style to the Hardy Boys. Tom hardly ever “said” anything; his words were always modified by how he said them. A “Tom Swifty” replaces “said” with a verb or verb clause that puns on the words actually spoken. For example: “Happy Birthday,” said Tom presently.)

In general, said bookisms belong to that class of prose that can be described by three words: tries too hard. Instead of letting the action and words speak for themselves, the author tries too hard to make the story meaningful, exciting, or vivid. A similar device, one which many writers employ, is the adjective splatter, a practice I consider boring, meaningless, tiresome, unnecessarily overwritten, and rankly amateurish. I’d never resort to adjective splatter myself.

None other than Stephen King Himself (everybody Tebow) has decried the use of the said bookisms, so they therefore must be avoided whenever possible. And yet…I find them creeping into my writing, despite my vigilance. As a writer I enjoy using words, verbs especially, and “said” is a pretty pedestrian word. And as a contrarian and a curmudgeon, I declare that said bookisms have their place, if used sparingly, especially in comic scenes where how what’s being said is as important as the words said themselves.

It’s not as if said bookisms are going away, either. I notice that they are particularly plentiful in children’s fiction, especially picture books and chapter books in which an easy way to show a colorful character is to describe how they say things, and a said bookism has the value of doing this is a compact manner. Misadventures and comic fairy tales for early middle graders are frequently packed with said bookisms.

Insisted the blogger.

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