Writing dialogue: Don’t use goofy words to replace “said”

One of my clients asked me this question:
Q. Using the word said after a line of dialogue all the time seems boring. Why can’t I use more descriptive verbs?
A. Using attribution verbs like gasped, laughed, spat, croaked, rasped, barked, and even (oh God please no) ejaculated and many others of their ilk is unnecessary and redolent of the work of amateurs and writers of pulp fiction. Speakers don’t gasp or spit or laugh a line, they say it.

Stephen King agrees, calling the use of these words “shooting the attribution verb full of steroids” (On Writing). He admits to committing that sin in the past, but declares now that “the best form of dialogue attribution is said.” Dean Koontz declares that he never uses any attribution but said, although he may have done so in the early days, as King did. Other writers and teachers, including Elmore Leonard, have also sung the praises of the simple word said.

One of Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” He says: “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.”

You can use some attribution verbs other than said as long as they aren’t of the steroid-injected kind. For instance, you can use words such as shouted, cried, called, whispered, murmured, mumbled, and a few others occasionally. If writers go beyond that by using goofy steroid words or verbs followed by adverbs, they’re intruding in the story by explaining too much. As King says, (On Writing) if your context is constructed correctly, “when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.”

So don’t write something like this: “Go to hell!,” he said angrily. Don’t add the adverb angrily. Anyone who says that is obviously pissed off.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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