What’s Wrong With This List(?)

I StumbledUpon a page from eight years ago (since which time, let’s hope, writers have smartened up) that lists two hundred (200!) words to use instead of “said.” Why?
See for yourself. I looked at that list and immediately eliminated all but maybe ten, and that’s only because they’re marginally less egregious than the other 190. And only if they’re used under extraordinary conditions. And rarely.

No less a literary personage than Elmore Leonard (see my blog post from June 2014) disagreed, as did Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. Have you read Ed McBain? Stephen King (see the September 2013 blog post)?

Most of the words on that loathsome list serve mainly as substitutes for weak writing. They also distract the readers, who are smarter than many writers give them credit for. If the dialogue is economical and strong, there’s no need to spoon feed the readers. They get that the characters are angry or scared or miserable or devious. Another dodge is to use adverbs (she said insistently). First, if you absolutely can’t resist, why not just write “she insisted”? Second, and more to my point, if the dialogue is well written, we should already know that she is insisting. Finally, laugh, hesitate, groan/moan, sigh, look, point, and all of their synonyms are also not dialogue tags. They are called “action beats,” and they don’t get commas before, during, or after the speech; they get periods.

Don’t distract your readers. Leave out as many words as you can and leave the heavy lifting (and the banter and heartfelt confessions) to the characters. They’ll tell the readers what they want them to know.

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