Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #3: Never Use a Verb other than “Said” to Carry Dialogue

Welcome to the third in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

A dialogue tag is the, “he said,” or “she said,” that accompanies a line. Many student and amateur writers believe they need to have variety in their dialogue tags.

They often try to be creative by choosing verbs like:

  • Claimed
  • Lied
  • Responded
  • Shouted
  • Barked
  • Snapped
  • Etc.

Leonard says not to do that. He argues we should only use “said.” And I agree with him. Here are my reasons why:

1. Using a verb other than “said” is the author telling the reader how the line is spoken. Every writer has heard the phrase, “show, don’t tell,” over and over and over again. Well, it applies to dialogue, too. Let’s look at this example:

“I’m being completely honest with you, man,” Frank lied.

By using “lied,” you are telling the reader that Frank isn’t being truthful. Instead, you could show that through the context of the scene or with some description of Frank’s tone and body language. Both of those options provide a more interesting reading experience. And they help to immerse your reader in the scene.

Don’t tell the reader how a character speaks a line. Show it by writing great dialogue that captures the sounds and attitudes of the people in your story.

2. “Said” helps you control the rhythm of a conversation. The idea here is that every line of dialogue belongs to a character. When a writer uses a word other than “said,” they are intruding into the conversation with their own voice.

“Said” is far less intrusive than any other verb. Eventually, the reader passes over all the dialogue tags, and their focus remains solely on the dialogue itself. The tags provide a split second of clarity without interrupting the flow of the speech. That’s what you want.

However, other verbs draw the reader’s attention away from the conversation, to the dialogue tag. That’s where the writer’s voice butts into the exchange. And that’s not what you want.

You can also use dialogue tags to create pauses. Read the following example out loud and listen to the rhythm with the tag placed at the end:

“What I think is we shoot the guy before he gets us,” Vinnie said.

Now read it aloud again, this time with the tag placed in the middle:

“What I think,” Vinnie said, “is we shoot the guy before he gets us.”

Hear that pause in the second rendering of the line? This is one of my favorite ways to play around with dialogue and the rhythms of speech. The reader should be so used to “said” that they pass right over the tag. But it still creates a split-second pause in the line. It reads smoothly and doesn’t pull the reader out of the conversation. Yet, you’ve just changed up the rhythm! Pretty cool, right?

The real goal is to write such good dialogue that you don’t need but a few tags. The reader should know who is speaking and get the meaning of the lines without your help.

I think of dialogue tags almost like punctuation. They affect the rhythm and provide both clarity and structure. Beyond that, I try to keep them as nondescript as possible.

I don’t want to intrude, because I think every scene belongs to the characters in it and not to me. So, I only use “said.”

Do you agree or disagree with this rule? Why or why not? Leave me a comment below!

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