I committed a shameful act this last week. It is so embarrassing I almost want to post under a pseudonym in case anyone reads this in twenty years and judges me.
It all started when my wife and I spent the evening holed up in a Puerto Vallartan hotel room while the rain ruined our vacation. Don't go to tropical places in June.
The only choice was to flip through the television, skipping through the Spanish telemundos for the rare American channel. Finally, we stopped on a movie station. The program looked familiar but I couldn't put my name on it.
“You know what this is?” my wife said, a smug smile on her face. By the time I figured it out, it was too late.
I was hooked on Twilight. Shit.
There was nothing to be done. I flew through the movies, and then flew through the books, finally finishing them last night. It is obviously a great story. Why else would every woman under thirty own a copy and/or have a fantasy of a long, dark night with Edward Cullen?
But there are some glaring flaws.
“Wrong again,” he murmured in my ear. “You are utterly indecent—no one should look so tempting, it's not fair.”
“You… made… me… faint,” I accused him dizzily.
“What am I going to do with you?” he groaned in exasperation.
“So much for being good at everything,” he sighed.
“I'm fine,” I insisted. “Your family is going to think I'm insane anyway, what's the difference?”
“That's right,” I answered immediately.
“You do smell nice, I never noticed before,” she commented.
“I hope you haven't been showing off—it's rude,” she scolded.
“He's been too modest, actually,” I corrected.
“Well, play for her,” Esme encouraged.
Notice anything? I took these dialogue snippets from a few pages I randomly selected. But she makes the same mistake throughout all four novels. Can you figure out what the problem is?
Elmore Leonard said, Never use any word other than “said” as dialogue tags. Why? Try reading the above out loud. The “he exclaimed” and “he admonished” and “she cried” become like a child saying your name over and over. Distracting.
The word “said,” though, is easily ignored. You want the attention focused on the dialogue, not your clever use of verbs. In many cases, it's good to change up word choice. You don't want to use “quintessential” or “luminescence” too many times. “Said” is a major exception. Let us tune it out. Please.
Besides, does “exclaimed” or even “whispered” really change how you read the dialogue? Instead, show the emotion with an action. Like this:
“I hate you,”
s he exclaimed she said, hurling her French book at him. The corner struck him just under the eye. A bright red mark began to rise on his skin.
Books like Twilight can misuse dialogue tags like this because the plot will suck a reader in deep enough they will ignore the distraction.
But just because Stephanie Meyer can do it, doesn't mean you can.
For fifteen minutes, write an argument between a couple over whether to watch Twilight or the Bourne Identity. Don't use any dialogue tags beside “said.”
Once you finish, post your practice in the comments. Have fun practicing!
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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