The Third Rule for Writing a Modern Novel

February 25, 2013 at 7:06 am

Never Use a Verb Other than ‘Said’ to Carry Dialogue

I hate this rule.

I do understand it. When I read books where it seems that the writer must use something different every time a character opens his mouth it can get annoying very quickly. If they think they MUST avoid ‘said’ at all costs and use ‘protested’ or ‘interrupted’ or ‘exclaimed’, trying to find a different one each time – ugh!

However, I don’t think going in the other direction and using ‘said’ every time is a good idea either.

I first encountered this rule when I was doing journalism. In that style of writing this concept makes sense. After all, if a journalistic article is simply supposed to be communicating facts to the reader (yes, that’s what it’s supposed to be about, although you wouldn’t know it sometimes!) then having ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ and nothing more than that is a good idea. Keep the reader’s attention on the facts.

However, when it comes to a novel, I think a bit of emphasis can help. Yes, I know the words themselves should convey enough about how the speaker is feeling and how they are talking, but sometimes that’s not possible with particular characters. Also, I think having ‘replied’ or ‘told her’ doesn’t hurt every so often so long as it’s not overdone.

Of course, some say that modern books should avoid identifying the speaker by name at all in dialogue. Again, this isn’t always possible, especially if it’s a scene with six people. However, with just two people do we really need to put in, ‘Jake said’ and ‘Anne said’ every other line? No.

But I still think using ‘said’ all the time is boring.

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