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You know how I’m an advocate for using strong words vs weak words? Here is one weak word I think you need to stick with. “Said.” There. I said it.

The great and powerful Elmore Leonard wrote in a New York Times article:

“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.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

I agree with Mr. Leonard.

Dialogue tags other than “said” are distracting, and sometimes silly. Take this for example:

“Robin’s blog is a delight,” Madame Weebles smiled.

No one can smile a sentence. Not even Madame Weebles.

Odds are, if Madame Weebles is talking about something as delightful as my blog, she is smiling. Also, think of her as she wrings out from Sandy’s deluge.

“Robin is a sham. She spouts nonsensical writing advice,” Le Clown sneered.

No one, except Le Clown, can sneer a sentence.

Using “said” as a dialogue tag blends into the wallpaper and the reader glides over the word. The words inside the quotation marks need to convey when someone “thunders,” “squeaks,” or “groans.” When the speaker “snorts,” I run for the Kleenex box.

My book group read a worthless book in October. I wasted my precious reading time on a poorly written story and I wanted to throw the book across the room. Foreshadowed promises were never fulfilled, characters were mamby-pamby, and at the end, there was no point except the author had the chance to hear herself think.

The capper for me with the book was the dialogue tag she used throughout. Oh, and her overuse of adverbs.

“What nonsense,” Peter smugly says. “There are no devils.”

So she says bravely, “That’s right. Grandma made up the story.”

But finally he says, with a flat voice, “Grandma knows about devils.”

Really? Says?

“Says” was fingernails on a chalkboard. The only consolation for me was that if she could be published, perhaps there is hope for me.

I think it is fine to use an “asked” dialogue tag now and then. But really, the question mark lets us know it is a question.

In writing this post, I learned that using a word other than “said” in dialogue has a name . . . “Said-Bookism.” I also learned there is a writerly debate over the issue. Some people love to have their characters “croak,” “hiss,” and “bellow.”

Where do you stand on the issue? Do you stick to Plain Jane “she said” or do you venture into the colorful world of “she grimaced?” While we are debating, do you prefer “dialogue” or “dialog?”

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