Until recently, the best way to start a flamewar among writers was to ask, perhaps disingenuously, “What’s so wrong with passive voice?” Now, it seems, we’ve moved on to “said” vs. all the other wonderful verbs one might use to add a dash of spice to ordinary dialogue.
While “he said” and “she said” can, indeed, be monotonous, some of the alternatives lead to ludicrous acts of linguistic contortion. It can be draining for the writer and reader alike. Imagine a little meet and greet session at a writer’s conference in the ballroom of a swanky, five-star hotel. The panel in the previous session has admonished, “Said is dead. If not, we ought to kill it. It’s dull and lifeless. Your reader must be told exactly how words were uttered – they cannot possibly be expected to figure it out from the context in which they’re spoken! Pepper your writing with pithy purple prose!”
“Balderdash,” muttered the curmudgeonly old technical writer. “Nonsense!” he asserted. Several others murmured their assent.
“Bad advice,” agreed Mr. Sinjin Smythe.
“I really don’t understand the problem,” Nora Lofthouse sighed.
Try that – try sighing a whole sentence. If you can do it, I want to see it on YouTube.
“Isn’t repetition boring? Isn’t redundancy dull?” added Ms. Lofthouse, quite unnecessarily driving her point home to no one in particular. “I think it’s marvelous to use more colorful varietals from the unabridged dictionary, don’t you?” she enquired, again, of no one in particular. She just liked to hear the musical lilt of her own voice.
“Yes, but don’t you think–” began the unknown author, biting back the words, noticing that all eyes were upon him. Glued on him, intently. He frantically began picking the eyeballs off his shirt, losing his train of thought as it went thundering through the ballroom to crash against the hotel lobby desk outside.
“Dear God, please let these writers meet somewhere else, next year,” prayed the front desk attendant, picking bits of flaming coal from her hair. “Anywhere else would do. I’m so sorry,” she apologized to the startled guest who had been trying to check in when his Pomeranian was caught up in the locomotive’s cow-catcher.
Meanwhile, the unknown author’s unspoken words bit back. “Ouch!” he exclaimed, hoping that one might properly “exclaim” an “ouch.” Hearing no objection, he was tempted to declare an epithet. He looked down and realized that he had missed several eyes, and plucked them from his shirt with distaste. “W-w-w-w-what do I do with these?” he stammered. “They’re disgusting! Eww! Gross!” he spluttered.
“You plucked them,” accused Mr. Sinjin Smythe.
“True,” he acknowledged. “But…surely you don’t expect me to hold them all night!” he protested.
“You figure it out,” admonished another, clearly wanting nothing to do with the eyeballs the poor unknown author was holding in his hand.
A harried and world-weary waiter came by, just then, and rescued the unknown author with a silver tray covered in thick layers of newsprint. “Just drop them here, Sir. Like yesterday’s kippers. But be quick about it,” he begged. “They like to follow people around the room. Occasionally,” he confessed quietly, “they even bore into their very souls.”
The unknown author shuddered and wiped tear fluid from his fingers. “Christ,” whined the unknown author, “how many words were in that list, again?” He struggled to remember, and hoped that this party would come to an end soon.
Just then, a meek little author whispered, “Sir?”
“Yes?” he giggled, growing hysterical at the thought of those eyes.
“You really oughtn’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” she scolded.
“Easy for you to say,” he raved. “You didn’t just have pluck fifty-seven eyeballs from your shirt, now, did you?” He recalled and recounted the tale to anyone who would listen, then calmed down a little and explained, “It was quite disturbing.” He grew silent, then reflecting upon the horror of it, moaned, “Really quite disturbing…”
“Oh, stop the caterwauling!” shrieked the octagenarian author of eighty nine midlist murder mysteries. “Be a man. Be a writer. Grow a set,” she ordered. “You sound like a little pansy-ass over there, all ‘ewww, eyeballs!'” she mocked him cruelly. “What do you write, romance novels? Hallmark poetry?” she grumbled.
“I wasn’t going to mention this,” said the meek little author who still stood at the unknown author’s elbow, “But,” she mentioned it anyway: “Your participle’s dangling.”
“Oh, no one’s participle dangles like Harry’s,” gushed the lush in the corner.
“Well, now, I’d challenge that,” boasted an equally inebriated author, quickly checking his fly to be sure the woman in the shadows was referring to his writing and not to his…well.
The lush, a luscious redhead in a skin tight orange leather mini-dress, pushed herself off the wall in one slow and sultry movement, and introduced Harry, so that he no longer possessed his only claim to fame; that was to say, he could no longer call himself an unknown author.
“Hello, Nan,” he seethed.
“Oh, now, you needn’t look so put out, Harry,” Nan taunted. “Aren’t you happy to see your favorite agent?” she pouted.
“I’d be happier if she weren’t drinking the bar dry,” Harry replied. “I’d be happier if she’d found any of my thirty-two manuscripts a good home,” he noted. And, he remembered, almost as an afterthought, “I’d be happier if she weren’t sleeping with my ex-wife!”
You could hear a pin drop as Harry’s last admonishment dangled precariously over the cliff-edge of poor taste.
“Well, fortunately for me, she wouldn’t be,” quipped Nan. The awkward moment passed, and the clinking of glasses and the smattering of small-talk filled in as background noise. “Really, that was quite gauche, Harry,” sneered Nan. “And in front of all these colleagues of ours,” she berated him under her breath.
Turning sharply, Nan ground a dime into the ballroom floor with her diamond-studded stiletto heel, imagining, as she did so, that it was Harry’s left ear.
“Quite gauche,” quoted the meek little writer, who was not so meek, after all. She, too, abandoned Harry, finally.
In the end, Harry declared, “Writing is for the birds. I do believe I should have been an accountant!” He drained his drink and cried out, “Good bye, cruel world!” He slammed out the ballroom doors, hopped aboard the locomotive that still chugged and bellowed black smoke in the lobby, and vanished into the Valhalla of fevered imagination.
By the time the evening was over, the panelists all agreed on one thing. There was a time and a place for a homely little “said,” and so, utterly exhausted and emotionally drained, they bid each other “Good night.”
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