The verb I don’t use

He leaned over his unfinished dinner, and said, “You don’t love me. You never did really love me.”

She took a sip of wine, perhaps to have a moment to think, then she said, “Well, yes I did. I don’t know how it all ended, but I just don’t any longer.”

“I would say” he said, “it was about the time you met Roger on the trip to New York!”

He said. She said. I find the writing life is much breezier without ever using that verb.  If I find myself reading a section that is a verbal pingpong match with the verb “said” as the paddle, I just lose interest. It sits there like last week’s sudoku puzzle, that still somehow is missing some 7s.

And I go father than that. Many writers try to spice up their dialog by using different verbs.  I really wish they wouldn’t. Instead of a pingpong match with predictable rhythms, it becomes a tangled mass of fancier words that often just don’t fit.

  • Replied
  • Retorted
  • Rebuffed
  • Taunted
  • Spat

You get the idea.  Writing is always better when you show instead of tell.  In the admittedly poor sample I started this blog entry with, the characters are (undoubtedly) having a lively discussion, but it reads like a snip from a newscast or some dry experimental recipe.  Instead, please show me what the characters are doing, and how they are reacting. In the right context, I’ll know which character says what without the crutches of he said, or she said.

He leaned over his unfinished dinner, stabbing the dirty end of a fork out over the table. “You don’t love me. You never did really love me.”  John awkwardly stabbed the fork into the apple turnover that he wasn’t really eating anyway. The handle slowly sank to one side.

She took a sip of wine, perhaps to have a moment to think. She slowly nodded her head, letting her curls lightly bob along the sides of her face. “Well, yes I did. I don’t know how it all ended, but I just don’t any longer.”

John leaned back and jutted his chin out for a moment as if thinking.  “I would say,” he leaned forward and pointed an accusing finger across the table. “It was about the time you met Roger on the trip to New York!”

It’s still some shabby dialog, and here it is without the context of any story. But at least I’ve dressed it up a little.  In my last several fiction projects, I’ve tried to remove all of the little helper verbs in dialog.

2 thoughts on “The verb I don’t use

  1. “My god!”, He exclaimed, “You have made a very valid point my man!”

    I completely agree with this. I have been trying to figure out what was needed to spice up my dialog between characters and once again, your insight has widened mine.

    Cheers!
    -TPR

    1. The other point to make is that using “said” as a natural part of the dialog is perfectly fine. I was talking with Jenny after the show, and she said that the lighting technician was goofing off with laser lights between sets to the point where the band was distracted! It must have been hilarious!

      Clearly a case where replied, retorted, et al just do not apply.

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