I got a second pass from one of my authors not too long ago, with a little note: “I’ve tried really hard to remove all the he-saids and she-saids. I may have missed some.” I opened the manuscript and saw a lot of sputtereds and demandeds and grimaceds.
Wait … what? I lay my head on my desk and practiced deep breathing for a few minutes. Haven’t we discussed this? Repeatedly? Yes. Yes, we have. Just use said. Show, don’t tell. No, really, just use said.
Then I fired off an email. “Who told you that?” Because I’m gonna—
“So-and-so,” she said, naming a multi-published, well-known and -liked author, who also happens to be one of “mine.” “At the writers conference last week. She said we should replace dialogue tags with action.”
That can’t possibly be right, I thought. So I fired off another email.
“I get this all the time following conferences.” My more-experienced author responded calmly, although that’s generally my role. “What I said was, ‘Replace dialogue tags with action.’ With beats.”
Oooooh. In other words …
“You don’t understand!” Carla shouted.
Carla slammed the cabinet closed as she turned to Joey. “You don’t understand!”
Or even …
“You don’t understand!” Carla slammed the cabinet closed and turned to Joey. “And you never will!”
The less experienced writer, misunderstanding, turns this into …
“You don’t understand!” Carla sputtered.
Sputtered, after all, being more active than said.
People, people, people. I’m gonna say this again. It’s an oversimplification, but commit it to memory: JUST USE SAID.
Don’t (except on very rare occasions) use …
asked, barked, bawled, chortled, cried, croaked, demanded, droned, ejaculated, exclaimed, exposited, gasped, growled, hissed, hollered, inquired, interrogated, intoned, laughed, murmured, muttered, noted, observed, pronounced, queried, rejoiced, retorted, screamed, shouted, smiled, snapped, sneered, snickered, sniffed, spit, stated, surmised, thundered, wheedled, wheezed, whispered.
Just use said. I know you learned something different in school and I know there are some self-styled “experts” out there who have no idea what they’re talking about. But parse what you’re hearing and pay attention to credentials.* And then just use said.
When I suggest you write snappier dialogue, I don’t mean for you to tell me it’s snappy by using snap as a dialogue tag! You could do something like this, maybe …
“I just—want—you—to leave me—alone!” Each word was like a twig snapping, and her angry eyes were aflame. Tommy backed away before he accidentally started a forest fire.
And that’s what I want you to do. Whenever you’re tempted to use a said substitute, take a deep breath and back away slowly before you accidentally mess up a perfectly good manuscript.
* One one-person operation calling him/herself an editor/publisher is quick to advertise he/she’s a PhD. But look closer: that doctorate’s in computer science. Think about it.
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