Biggles never said

A friend of mine is a big Biggles fan and recently lent me a couple of books to read. The language is wonderful, and I love the way the author paints a picture, but there are some things about the writing style that really date the books.

The first thing that struck me was how long the sentences were. I was forgetting what we were talking about by the time we got to the end of them in some instances. This just shows how lazy I’ve become with my reading, so I was glad to get some practice in.

The next thing that struck me was how politically incorrect the books were, on more levels than I want to get into here. So we’ll just leave that alone.

The third thing to strike me, and strangely enough not until I was some time into the book, was how rarely the word ‘said’ was used. In the first three pages people chipped, returned, added, answered, stated, inquired, whispered, queried, ejaculated, muttered and even averred (I had to look that one up), but no one ‘said’ anything until page 12. Page 12!!!!

One of the early ‘rules’ of writing that I learned was you should try to use ‘said’ as much as possible because all the other options just get in the way of otherwise good prose, and the eye easily slips over the word ‘said’. I diligently went through all my stories and axed my answered’s and quelled my queries, replacing all with a nice soft ‘said’.

So did it irritate me when I was reading Biggles? Yes, a bit, but not as much as when I’m reading a modern story and someone does exactly the same thing. I guess it was just the style of the day to replace ‘said’ whenever possible and I was being more understanding, but when did that style change? More importantly –why?

Why was it determined that said was bad once and good later? Who decides on all of these rule?

It makes me want to break the rules,’ declared Natalie.

4 thoughts on “Biggles never said”

  1. I agree implicitly, Elizabeth avowed.
    Seriously though, I think people get hung up on the ‘said’ thing. Not that I’m advocating a return to Biggles era level of alternatives to said, but I do get tired of people jumping down throats if you dare use one. They are sometimes useful as a way to add either unambiguous tone or added complexity to tone of dialogue.
    Then again, who am I to argue with the creators of writing rules? she asked humbly.

  2. “Said” is a little too neutral for me. It doesn’t convey any kind of emotional force or assertion. “Declare” is dominant, “whimper” is submissive, “vent” implies annoyance and “stated” sounds very sure of itself.

    Just using “said” all the time because it is easy is just lazy writing for the sake of the lazy readers.

    Break the rules, Nat. Break them hard!

  3. I think the idea is that the dialogue is supposed to be so strong that you don’t need to describe how it’s said… But I think you can use a ‘said alternative’ sparingly. It’s just when it’s every speech tag that it’s frowned upon. I tend to slip one in when I feel compelled to include an adverb… (ie murmured instead of ‘said softly’… but even then not always.)

    My big query of the moment is ‘said’ versus ‘asked’ when there’s a question mark. As far as I can tell, people seem to be split on this. Some feel ‘asked’ is redundant if there’s a question mark used… but it’s not as though you’d have a question without one! What do you do for this one?

  4. Wow, asked, now there’s a conundrum that’s going to haunt me ever time too. I think I do often say asked, but I’ll have to go back and look. And I am heartened by the anti-said movement I’m seeing here. I will slip more into my writing than I used to. Recently I’ve just gone through and deleted any said alternatives in the past, but I think I’ll let a few more slip through now.

    You know this has ruined my enjoyment of all my books at the moment, I’m on the lookout for how many said’s everyone is using and it is driving me mad. Sometimes it’s the only word I can see on the page!

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