He Said/ She Sighed Part 3 – Enough Already!

"Enough already!" he brayed.
“Enough already!” brayed the ibex.

Here’s one last rant sparked by a “how to write fiction” book that advised using “said/say” as the only dialogue verb (as in, “‘I spent thirty dollars on jelly beans at Mont Tremblant this weekend,’ she said.”)

(That is a true statement, sadly. They fool you with the $2.99/100g sign. I still think in pounds. “Grab a bag each,” I told the kids. Sigh.)

“Only use said in dialogue” is advice I’ve seen repeated in books and blogs all over the place and it’s advice I think is stupid – see Part 1 of this topic (really, I should have stopped there) and Part 2 backing up my opinion with random selections from my highbrow bookshelf.

"Must eat jelly beans," chanted the zombie children in the candy store.
“Must eat jelly beans,” chanted the zombie children in the candy store.

The same how-to-write-fiction book probably advised, “Cut out all your adverbs,” but I’m not sure because I stopped reading it. That’s another bit of writing advice I’ve seen dispensed in pithy tips all over the place. Using an adverb with a non-said dialogue verb (as in, “‘Thirty dollars for jelly beans?’ she  shouted hoarsely”) would be writing on the edge of madness according to these tip-dispensers.

But a quick glance at my bookshelf showed that most authors are writing on the edge of madness. Here’s an example from a book you may have heard of:

F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, page 85:

“he asked immediately” / “he inquired blankly”

“he remarked vaguely” / “I asked” / “he added hollowly”

Don’t people call Fitzgerald one of the greatest American writers of all time? Yet he seems to have strayed from the tip-sheet.

Even wordier was this random page from my 20-book sampler:

 Doris Lessing, “The other woman” in Collected Stories, page 116:

“he said” / “he asked carefully” / “she replied evasively”

“she hesitated and then said” / “she went on resentfully” / “she announced defiantly”

“he…suggested on an impulse” / “she began to explain”

That’s a lot of verbs and adverbs. And yet I do believe that Lessing won a prize for her writing. What was it again? Oh yeah. The Nobel Prize for Literature.

"Want a jelly bean?" the little boy laughed.
“Want a jelly bean?” the little boy laughed.

Lest you think the fancy verbs and adverbs are a thing of the past, I am right now reading the Journey Prize Stories from 2007 and in the first story, “Swimming in Zanzibar” by Krista Foss – which is great, BTW – the characters “ask,” “remark,” “bark,” “persist,” “repeat,” and “protest” their dialogue, plus they yell “angrily,” pick on people “mercilessly,” empty out of a van “groggily,” look at people “coldly,” move “quickly,” and do all sorts of things described in verbs and adverbs with absolute disregard for somebody else’s quick tips.

I’m on page 44 of Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, where one character “frantically” sets things in order, another rings off “quickly,” a group of people “usually” head home, someone greets customers “effusively,” plus we get this dialogue verb: “’Girl, you look good!’ she would ooze…” Ooze. That’s a long way from the tip-sheet.

Okay, yeah, Brand is a poet. She doesn’t follow any “limit your use of words” advice. But when I grabbed Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms for contrast (that wasn’t in my original 20-book sample because I thought it would stack the deck against me), I found in the middle of page 173, “said the priest politely.” An adverb. In dialogue. Where it ought not to be, some say. (I thought it might have been Hemingway who first said that, actually, but maybe not.)

My point is this: Don’t take “rules of writing fiction” too seriously. (Nobody else does.)

"Got any jelly beans?" inquired the elk hopefully.
“Got any jelly beans?” inquired the elk hopefully.

Think a little harder about those writing tips. Or don’t – instead of reading tips, read good books and then some and then some more, and write and write till it sounds just right. Worry more about your story and your characters and your scenes, and your dialogue verbs may take care of themselves. If a scene reads well, don’t revise it to eliminate all the alternatives to “said” thinking you have to. And please don’t get rid of your adverbs. I want to know if a character dies happily or kisses softly or laughs sadly or speaks angrily.

It is silly to think there are words denied to writers, that there are entire classes of words off limits to good writing. That is just crazy.

Lists of writing tips are shallow by nature – they will never tell anyone how to write well. We must dig deeper for that. Don’t get sidetracked checking off boxes for a paint-by-number book that follows tips like “don’t use adverbs” or “use said as your only dialogue verb.” You don’t have to do that. What you have to do is much, much harder.

And that’s enough already. This post is off schedule, but I was busy last Friday checking out this:

“Get lost!” growled the bear.


And I will be busy this Friday checking out this:


“Caesar is home,” said the ape.

So this is my in-between post. Must go eat jelly beans now. Only half a pound left.


One Comment on “He Said/ She Sighed Part 3 – Enough Already!

  1. Pingback: He Said/She Sighed (HYSRT!) | Ever On Word

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