Crumpling newspaper to start a fire in the wood stove, an article caught my attention. It was in the weekly that advertises trucks, horses and cracked corn for sale so I wasn’t expecting a primer on language. Yet here it was, the third reminder in a week that “said” is enough.
The columnist quoted Elmore Leonard: “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. Said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”
Just a few days ago, the editors at WriteDivas typed out the first reminder: “Commented, growled, roared, chided, joked, interjected, and teased are not dialogue tags.”
The second reminder showed up in my “Revision and Self-Editing” book by James Scott Bell. He wrote, “An attribution tells the reader who is speaking. Almost always, the simple said should be your default setting. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said isn’t creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it. This is a mistake.”
And, it is a mistake that editors readily notice. When I don my editor’s cap for clients, I often work with other contract writers who interview a variety of people for industry profiles. I’m vigilant to change all the “he quipped” and “she exhorted” to “he said” or “she said.” The reason editors notice this mistake is because editors read for clarity. The creative attribution is not clear and can imply a certain tone to different readers.
As a writer, what you want is an invisible attribution; you want a dialog tag that won’t make readers pause. Say it with said. It’s clear, understood and allows you to not intrude as a writer upon the speaker.
What I’m learning from Bell in his book (which I highly recommend for fiction writers) is that “Dialog the fastest way to improve your fiction.” He dedicates an entire chapter to this point. So, don’t get caught up in crafting creative attributions or dialogue tags, study the nuances of fictional dialogue and use it to shape your story and create character action.
I’m thinking this is a big lesson given the number of reminders I’ve encountered in a single week from diverse sources. “That’s our writing tip from Carrot Ranch for the week,” the buckaroo said.