Diz, the English teacher, handed me back my homework. He’d underlined “she said” ten times in red. He peered at me over his glasses. “Look, Parkes, we know she said it. If she had two lips, a tongue, and half-decent vocal cords, of course she said it. We want to know how she said it. Did she shout, mutter, or whisper? ‘Said’ is a lazy verb. Don’t be lazy. Be precise.”
Fast-forward a few decades and I’m sitting in a novel-writing course. The topic is the same.
“Stick to ‘he said/she said’ in dialogues,” we’re told. “Never anything else.”
I learn there’s a word for verbs like “muttered” or “gasped” when they replace “said”. They are “suspect verbs”. Suspect verbs are a no-no. This view is confirmed at another writers’ conference I attend. Both courses quote Elmore Leonard’s Third Rule of Writing: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”
“Received wisdom these days is to use ‘he said/she said’ throughout,” confirms yet another delegate.
The key words here are “these days”. Writing is as susceptible to fashion as clothes or hairstyles.
Fast-forward another year. I’ve written a story with lots of dialogue. I stick to “he said/she said”: no suspect verbs. I enter the story in a local contest. The competition judge comes to give face-to-face appraisals. She is a novelist with half a dozen books to her credit. She hands mine back. She has underlined “he said” eight or nine times in red. (Is she Diz’s daughter?) At the bottom, she’s written, “Why not ring the changes? Use ‘muttered’ or ‘growled’ sometimes.”
I leave muttering and growling. I am a walking suspect verb. Gifted teachers that I respect have given me contradictory advice. Who’s right?
I decided to examine how established writers handle verbs in dialogues. I looked at 1000 dialogue utterances: 100 from each of ten writers. The ten novels were: Oh, Play That Thing (Roddy Doyle), For Whom The Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway), Birds Without Wings (Louis de Bernières), The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown), Dead Beat (Val McDermid), Kingdom Come (J.G.Ballard), From Potter’s Field (Patricia Cornwell), First Among Equals (Jeffrey Archer), The Woman In His Life (Barbara Taylor Bradford), and Bad Boy (Peter Robinson).
I counted three forms, listed here together with my labels for them and the results of the count:
“Open the box.” (zero)
“Open the box,” she said. (said)
“Open the box,” she whispered. (other)
Hemingway: zero 36, said 50, other 14. Doyle: zero 72, said 27, other 1. Ballard: zero 94, said 3, other 3. Cornwell: zero 43, said 33, other 24. Bradford: zero 29, said 22, other 49. Archer: zero 50, said 36, other 14. McDermid: zero 41, said 13, other 46. De Bernières: zero 42, said 40, other 18. Brown: zero 73, said 17, other 10. Robinson: zero 72, said 23, other 5.
Overall: zero 552, said 264, other 184.
The zero option is used when it is clear who is saying what. For example, if the only two speakers are a detective and a suspect, tag verbs are probably superfluous. Peter Robinson, Roddy Doyle and J.G.Ballard have long, zero-option sections that are punchy and riveting.
Where there are three or more speakers, “said” or other verbs are inserted for clarity, but not after every speech.
Many writers add a narrative precursor before a speech. These precursors indicate an emotion or event not conveyed by the words themselves:
Teabing chuckled. “I fly from Le Bourget.” (Brown)
Rustem snorted. “Enver Paska has grown great.” (de Bernières)
I scowled. “It’s nothing to do with partying.” (McDermid)
Now let’s examine the dictum that we should stick to “said” throughout. The rationale behind this advice goes like this:
‘Let the readers use their imagination to decide the tone. They know from the situation, from the words used, and from their knowledge of the characters how an utterance is said.’
Well, they may know some of the time, but not always. Imagine you’re writing the first chapter of a novel. A strong-minded businesswoman is married to an equally strong-minded banker. He becomes so abusive that she flees to an aunt’s house in the country. One morning when her aunt is out, she hears glass breaking and finds her husband in the hall with a gun. Which of these verbs would you choose to fill the two blanks?
said, said + adverb, whispered, screamed, shouted, whimpered, begged, breathed, hissed, snarled; zero option; some other verb.
“Thought you’d get away that easily, did you?” (1)
“Put that gun down,” (2)
Write your answers down before reading the next paragraph.
Was it easy or were there lots of options? If you used “shouted” or “screamed”, did you use them for him or for her? Your choice can tell the reader a lot about the emotions and strong-mindedness of the characters. I wonder how many chose “said” to fill both blanks?
In the 1000-utterance count, “said” outnumbers other tag verbs by 3:2. Doyle, Ballard and Robinson stick closely to Elmore Leonard’s advice, but Bradford and McDermid prefer other verbs. Bradford likes “exclaimed”, “muttered”, “murmured”, “suggested” and “whispered”, along with a whole host of others. McDermid uses “flashed back”, “retorted”, “volunteered”, “gasped”, “muttered”, “mumbled”, “drawled”, “snapped”, “bitched”, “hedged”, and “spluttered”. Even Hemingway throws in a “shouted”, “called”, or “grinned”, and most of the ten writers use the occasional “asked”, “answered” or “called”.
There is a world of difference between Robinson’s crisp, clipped style and the flowery, adorned dialogue of Bradford. It makes sense to cut out dead wood when editing, but there has been considerable bandwaggoning with regard to teaching economy of style. You can often identify those writers who have attended a creative writing class purely by observing the dominance of “said” as a tag verb and their studied avoidance of adverbs. Clipped, pared-down dialogue is fashionable, but it may not be to everyone’s taste, as writers like McDermid have realised.
The five conclusions below are not so much my opinions as the collective wisdom gleaned from the ten writers examined.
(1) With two speakers, use zero option wherever possible to maintain pace and to heighten drama.
(2) With multiple speakers, insert tag verbs where necessary to make clear who is speaking.
(3) Use “said” more often than more specific verbs.
(4) Use more specific verbs where the tone could not be deduced from the speakers’ words or from knowledge of their character.
(5) Use narrative precursors sparingly. They can amplify characters’ words but can also slow the action.
Next time I’ll be looking, lingeringly, at the much-maligned adverb.