Part three of the series on Elmore Leonard’s rules… ‘Worth reading?’ you ask. ‘Of course,’ I asseverate.
3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue
Elmore says: 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 and go to the dictionary.
This is also happens to be a golden rule of most Creative Writing classes, and sounds like sensible advice. Employing outlandish verbs to carry dialogue is one of the distinguishing features of bad writing — Adrian Mole turns 30 this year, a convenient excuse to remember the first page of his novel-in-progress Precinct:
[Jake Butcher’s] cigarette dropped with a curse from his lips. ‘Damn,’ he expectorated…
‘What am I doing here?’ questioned Jake to himself. ‘Why did I come?’ he anguished. ‘Where am I going?’ he agonized.
‘Expectorated’ is, of course, hard to get away with, if marginally more respectable than ‘he ejaculated’, which is guaranteed to provoke giggles at the back (and probably the front) of the class. This example comes from the sadly-forgotten W.H. Wills, once published alongside Charles Dickens:
‘Julia!’ He ejaculated, passionately kissing her hand, ‘I can retain this mask of ceremony no longer…’
Just about on the subject of Dickens and double entendre, this could be as good an opportunity as any to cite a fantastic passage from Martin Chuzzlewit, a useful reminder of exactly how ridiculous Dickens can be:
When she spoke, Tom held his breath, so eagerly he listened; when she sang, he sat like one entranced. She touched his organ, and from that bright epoch, even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence.
Martin Chuzzlewit also happens to contain ‘Mr. Jefferson Brick expectorated’, while Oliver Twist contains Mr. Bumble ejaculating in blissful ignorance of the verb’s secondary meaning. Dickens’ language can frequently seem quaint and faintly archaic, but he is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest writers, and the BBC has filled December and January with programme after programme on his work: Gillian Anderson starring in Great Expectations, a finished version of Edwin Drood, Armando Iannucci exploring Dickens’ legacy and Sue Perkins ‘exposing the lesser-known reality of the Dickens family Christmas.’ On BBC radio, Martin Chuzzlewit, minus Tom’s elevated organ, has migrated to Mumbai. Clearly, Dickens alone provides proof that the liberal use of verbs other than ‘said’ won’t do an awful lot of damage to your posthumous reputation as a writer.
Before moving on to other examples, there’s still enough time for one more unoriginal observation. People don’t just ‘say’. Depending on the situation, they shout, whisper, rattle off sentences like a DJ after six cups of coffee, even asseverate. Reducing so many ways of speaking to a single verb is a stylistic affectation; ultimately, ‘said…said…said’ (or an austere absence of verbs) can be as obtrusive as ‘questioned…anguished…agonised.’
Five good reasons to ignore him:
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
‘You are horrid and disgusting to me!’ she shouted, getting more and more excited. ‘Your tears are — water! You never loved me; you have no heart, no honour!’
Creative Writing aficionados will notice Tolstoy falling into the trap of ‘telling, not showing’ in addition to the trap of using a verb stronger than said as he describes Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly) reacting to ‘an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess.’ In this case, ‘said’ seems completely insufficient — far too weak a verb to carry the weight of Dolly’s anger.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
‘You must not go!’ she answered, holding him as firmly as her strength allowed. ‘You shall not, I tell you.’
‘For one hour,’ he pleaded earnestly.
‘Not for one minute,’ she replied.
‘I must — Linton will be up immediately,’ persisted the alarmed intruder.
Roll up, Twilight fans! It’s Bella and Edward’s favourite book, although it’s hard to believe either of them got past Lockwood’s resolutely uneventful preamble. As Cathy attempts to prevent Heathcliff from leaving, Emily Brontë uses four different verbs in as many lines. Tough to imagine Elmore Leonard lapping up Wuthering Heights, but perhaps he’d learn something if he did.
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
‘Sl-o-o-o-w elevator,’ Alfred said.
‘This is a prewar building,’ Chip explained in a tight voice.
Jonathan Franzen, regarded (at least by my former tutor) as a master of dialogue, generally sticks to ‘said’, but realises that a complete absence of variation would be monotonous. In this scene, in which Chip is struggling to deal with the wandering attentions of his elderly parents, Chip ‘explains’ because… well, he’s explaining. Sometimes ‘said’ isn’t enough to indicate a character’s tone of voice (although Franzen feels the need to add ‘in a tight voice’ here, just in case we didn’t get it).
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
‘D’ye see him?’ cried Ahab…
‘By salt and hemp!’ cried Stubb, ‘but this swift motion of the deck creeps up one’s legs and tingles at the heart…’
‘There she blows — she blows! — she blows! — right ahead!’ was now the mast-head cry.
‘Aye, aye!’ cried Stubb, ‘I knew it — ye can’t escape — blow on and split your spout, O whale! The mad fiend himself is after ye!’
Here, after hundreds of miles and hundreds of pages, Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale is almost over: Moby-Dick bursts out of the ocean tantalisingly close to the Pequod. Not a word is ‘said’ in this scene, but plenty are ‘cried’ — after all, the crew have been ‘worked bubblingly up, like old wine worked anew’ by ‘the frenzies of the chase.’ Melville employs the same verb four times in a short passage to emphasise the thrill of the hunt, the deafening level of noise aboard the ship and the wild excitement amongst the crew.
Joseph Heller, Catch 22
‘What are you waking me up for?’ whimpered Colonel Korn.
‘They captured Bologna during the night, sir. Is the mission cancelled?’
‘What are you talking about, Black?’ Colonel Korn growled. ‘Why should the mission be cancelled?’
Catch 22 is a riot of language, a novel far too colourful to limit itself to a single dialogue-carrying verb. Picking two pages at random, the dialogue is supported by ‘confided’, ‘inquired’, ‘explained’, ‘snickered’ and ‘crowed’, as well as Colonel Korn whimpering and growling in response to being woken up by Captain Black. Deployed correctly, alternative verbs carry plenty of comic potential — ‘whimpered Colonel Korn’ is, somehow, far funnier than ‘said Colonel Korn.’