Phil Huston slapped me. “Mole, you don’t need dialog tags to get people talkin’.”
The slap was proverbial, but it hurt regardless. “But Phil, there are so many good speaking verbs I can use.” I sloshed more whiskey into mine and his glasses.
“When the talking gets heavy and you need to I.D. someone, as Elmore Leonard said, ‘you can use said, but that’s it.'”
I sipped at my drink. “So, instead of all those interesting speaking modifier verbs I just, I just, well what do I do?”
Phil rubbed his hand over his face. “Listen, when people talk, they do things. They move their arms, hand, eyes, their whole bodies. They make faces, sometimes they might grunt or belch or fart. But other than that, use what their doin’ to cue your readers into what’s happening.”
I sat massaging my temples. This was all hard to take. I’d been so used to scanning my list of “said” replacements; I have a great long list of the insidious things. I looked him square in the eye. “If I can’t use words like grumbled, or swore, or giggled I may just quit writing altogether.”
The sound of his glass striking the table shocked me from my false bravado. “Mole, there is absolutely no reason to use those words. I can grumble, swear or giggle, sure, but not as part of how I’m speaking.”
I cursed under my breath. “You just wasted a whole dollars worth of whiskey.”
“What I’m teaching you right now,” he said, “is worth more than a dozen bottles of whiskey.”
I refilled his glass and nodded, accepting his words. “Alright, I’ll give your theory a shot. But if it don’t work, I tell you right now, I’m quittin’.”
His laugh echoed in the small virtual chamber we’d rented for this conversation. “If you quit writing, I’ll quit drinkin’.”
“You got yourself a bet.” I knew I’d been beat, but I held up my glass for the congenial clink.
“Cheers!” we both said simultaneously.
[Phil Huston did not condone nor approve of this exchange. But his teaching did recently enter my consciousness. We’ll see if he finds and reads this, and whether or not he’ll ask to qualify, alter or obliterate the text. Which I’ll gladly do, at his request.]