Thursday, July 05, 2007

," he said.

Thanks to a thoughtful friend, I now own a copy of “Shut Up!” He Explained, by William Noble (Paul S. Erickson, Publisher, 1987).

Chapter 8 reminded me of the old editorial policy at The New Yorker under the watchful eyes of Harold Ross and Wolcott Gibbs:

“One of the rules, according to Thurber, was that a passage of dialogue is best followed by said. Anything else--shouts or exclaims or retorts, for example--is just wasted motion. No verb, in other words, should substitute for said.” [p.91]

That’s a bit extreme, perhaps, but it errs on the side of the angels. It’s a rule that more writers should observe, especially in stories posted on the internet. I did a quick and dirty search and found groaners such as these:

• “If only [she] had been at home, she could have found him for us," asserted Peter.
• "You're not in earnest, that woman?" gasped Felicity at last.
• "I wonder if the wishbone she gave me would have done any good," cried Cecily suddenly.
• “I’ll probably continue to smoke,” he averred.
• "I'll never forgive myself for not thinking about it before," mourned Cecily.
• "Oh, let's go to bed," growled Dan.
• "You might tell me all about it, Sara," I insinuated.
• You've got to give the spell time to work," he expostulated.
• "Oh, how he must have suffered!" moaned Cecily.
• "I'm sure I shall die when I find myself up on that platform, facing people,"she sighed.
• “I once worked in a circus,” I volunteered.
• “Sorry,” she demurred. “I scratched necrophilia off my list a long time ago.”
• "And I hope it will be a lesson to him to stay home after this," commented Felicity.
• “And that’s their right,” he opined.
• "I wonder what it is," speculated Cecily.

The New Yorker policy now allows substitutions for said, but Noble points out that leaving out any modifier at all--even he/she said--allows the dialogue to speak for itself. Omission is a good way to change the rhythm and pace and avoid needless repetition. But never undervalue the word said. Straining for synonyms is counterproductive, he pontificated.

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