Ten Rules in Ten Days - Rule 3: Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue

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 and go to the dictionary.

This is a big one to me. One should be able to tell how a person said something by the context.

Here are a few books I skimmed to see what the author did:

Ironweed, by William Kennedy (Pulitzer Prize), a literary work. Only “said,” even when it’s a question, unless he’s specifying to whom the question is directed.

Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard, a crime novel. Only “said,” even if it’s a question.

A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon, a mystery. “Said,” “asked,” “answered,” “suggested,” “demanded,” etc.

Invincible, by Joan Johnston, a romance. “Said,” “asked,” “chided,” “blurted,” “snapped,” “warned,” “pointed out,” etc.

Shouldn’t we be able to tell from the context whether something a character says is an answer, a warning, a suggestion, a demand, or whether they’re pointing something out? What does “blurted” or “chided” add to the story and our understanding of the dialogue? Can’t we also tell from the context whether someone is chiding, snapping, or blurting? Does it matter?

The books by Donna Leon and Joan Johnston are very well-written books. They are good authors. But apparently, their genres support tossing in words other than “said” and “asked.” The more literary works omit them.

So, what to do? I think you have to follow your genre. If you are writing a romance, and people expect and like to find “chided,” and “snapped,” etc., then you’d better have them.

If you want your work to be considered a serious literary work, or even genre fiction with a literary bent, use only “said,” even if it’s a question. We know it’s a question because there’s a question mark. You could probably toss in an “asked” now and then, particularly if it’s necessary to make it clear who’s being asked the question.

In any event, you should use these dialogue tags only to the extent necessary for the reader to keep track of who’s speaking.


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