The Quick and Dirty Guide to Using Bookisms

Remember the time that Ron ejaculated loudly in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? I do. No, there wasn’t (ahem) a nocturnal emission, J.K. Rowling used a bookism. Bookisms are when a writer substitutes an action or adverb in lieu of using the word ‘said’ in dialogues. They are descriptors or qualifiers that writers add when they get tired of typing ‘said’.

When people start talking about the misuse of the word ‘said’ – they usually reference Stephen King’s On Writingwhere King claims ‘said’ is the best identifier to use in conversations. Reading ‘said’ in a conversation is like having blinders on – it’s a word that it instantly absorbed without the reader noticing.  King is a little harsh when it comes to bookisms, advocating to use descriptors rarely and banish adverbs completely. Elmore Leonard has a similar viewpoint as well, in his Rules for Writing, adverbs are sin #3:

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

‘Said’ is an unnoticeable word, but I find that bookisms can be equally unnoticed when used appropriately. I find bookisms are best used during action scenes (not just fight scene but scenes where the character is in movement). During fight scenes, dialogue is woven through the actions of the character. The character is in constant motion, thus dialogue must also move quickly. There are no stand-alone conversations, just movement. The key to a good bookism is to continue with a character’s thoughts or actions. Don’t just let the character smile or grin their way through a conversation.

When writing conversations in novels, suddenly important or emotionally-charged conversations between characters just look like a wall of text. Adding in an ‘asked’ or a ‘grin’ instead of ‘said’ can give the writer some breathing room within the text. The problem with bookisms is when the author only uses them when they’ve grown tired of ‘said’. That wall of text might have broken them down, but once a bookism is improperly used, characters start ‘ejaculating’ all over the place. There are certain words that can’t help but stand out. There is a graphic that made its way around Tumblr with the alternative words for said – I’m sure a small earthquake was caused by the collective eye-twitching of certain writers.

I think bookisms do need to be used, albeit in moderation. As I mentioned above, ‘said’ is an unnoticed word – to an author the multiple uses of ‘said’ might stand out but to the reader it’s nearly invisible. When a writer stops using ‘said’ and has their character exclusively ‘ask’, ‘tell’, ‘shout’, ‘grin’, ‘laugh’, the author risks looking like a hack. It really boils down to two simple points of view: use them or don’t. If you use them, keep it simple.

Additional Reading:
TV Tropes – Said Bookism
Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing
How to Write Dialogue
How to Write Dialogue that Works