Redefining north.

I Said, You Said, Red Said, Blue Said by Tom Rich

I Said, You Said, Red Said, Blue Said by Tom Rich


The other day, I stumbled across a list of writing tips from Elmore Leonard. I've never read any Elmore Leonard novels, though I kind of want to now. At any rate, partway through the list I came across this one:

"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."

Well, sure: no character should ever asseverate, and indeed nobody should asseverate in real life, either. I would like it stated in the permanent record that I am 100% against asseveration. I just looked it up, and apparently it means "to affirm or declare positively or earnestly." Well, people and characters should do that without having to call it asseverating. Let the surrounding dialogue, events, characterization, and so forth indicate the manner in which the person affirms or declares whatever they're affirming or declaring.

We all learn this stuff fairly early on in the process of becoming writers, and its more or less good advice. It should be clear from context and the way you wrote the dialogue if a character is snapping, snarling, or stammering. Stuff like "observed", "continued", or "added" is, as a general thing, fairly pointless as well. And God help you if you feel the need for your characters to ejaculate their dialogue.

All that said, I don't think that this advice is universal. Consider, if you will, two characters, Hortense and Betram, who are standing on opposite sides of a wide, noisy stream:

"Come across the stream," said Bertram. "That weird guy with the shoe polish is behind you!" "Oh no!" said Hortense. 

That doesn't really seem to work; I have my doubts that Hortense and Bertram can actually hear once another. Consider, then:

"Come across the stream," shouted Bertram. "That weird guy with the shoe polish is behind you!" "Oh no!" cried Hortense. 

Much better, though I would probably drop Hortense's dialogue tag altogether, let the exclamation mark indicate volume, and get on with her crossing the stream. You get the point, though, that we need some indication that Hortense and Bertram are raising their voices. Suppose Hortense and Bertram continue on their way, and are later pursued through an abandoned light fixture factory by the deranged shoe polish salesman, who is also an android and from the future. The two of them huddle behind a piece of machinery and watch the salesman's flashlight beam play across the floor:

"Hand me that bag of marbles; I'll throw them and distract him," said Bertram.

It seems that Bertram has just given away the game, and that Hortense could have picked a better partner for her adventures. Perhaps Bertram should have kept his voice down, like so:

"Hand me that bag of marbles; I'll throw them and distract him," whispered Bertram. Better, but I'd still want to get that tag closer to the beginning of the sentence, just to make sure the reader doesn't misunderstand the volume and think Bertram is a complete moron (or in league with the shoe polish salesman; it's a complicated story).

The point, I think, is that dialogue tags other than "said" do have a use, and that use, as far as I can see, is indicating the auditory qualities, as opposed to the attitude or tone of the person's speech. Which fits with the other general principle of trying to ground things in sensory detail whenever possible.

So, there you have it. Your characters can shout, holler, scream, whisper, murmur, and even sussurate if you're feeling fancy, but they should probably avoid claiming, fretting, gasping, commenting, or conceding. Certainly they shouldn't asseverate.

Keep it sensory, keep it simple, and keep it awesome. Onward, readers, and happy writing!

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