Phil Huston slapped me

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.]

10 thoughts on “Phil Huston slapped me

  1. I learned this lesson somewhat recently, to be frank. A guy named Stephen King taught it to me, among other things, in May of 2016:

    The funny thing is, I still wrote 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo in November, doing exactly all the wrong things. In my defense, I’ve never written much fiction before, and I had to write 50,000 words of it in 27 days, so the whole thing is probably sloppy as hell.

    A very influential English professor I met in 2002 told me something I’ve never forgotten, however: “Once I know you know the rules,” she said, “You’re free to break them as you wish. It’s the writing that matters; not the rules.”

    Still, you make a good point, Mole. I have a long way to go.

    “The man makes a point,” I thought, “I should just say I said.”

    I’ll fix it all in the rewrite. I promise.

    In the meantime, who the heck is “Phil Huston”? ๐Ÿ˜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You pulled a nano huh? To quote Will Geer, “So Pilgrim, were it worth the trouble?” Maybe only time will tell.

      I’m quite certain that there are quicksand, crocodiles and tsetse flies at every turn; this writing thing is like seeking the source of the Nile: Dr. Livingston… Where the hell are you?

      With only 4-6 books read per adult (grin), and 500k new ones every year, who can possibly think that anybody but their mother, and weird Uncle Yanko will want to read their work? Why? Why am I doing this to myself?


      1. If there are 350 million people in America (for example) and each of them reads an average of just 5 books (we’ll say), then 1.75 billion books are being consumed in the United States alone. This means that supply (500,000) is not keeping up with demand (1.75 billion), which means the world needs my book. ๐Ÿ˜

        To put it another way, there are tens of thousands of musicians trying to get heard, every year, and somehow Nickelback made it big.

        I guess what I’m trying to say, is what one of the great risk-takers of our time once said to his robot companion:

        “Never tell me the odds.” ๐Ÿ˜‰

        On a side note: Nano was fun. My book, however, sucks. I’m hoping to be the Nickelback of novelists. ๐Ÿ˜Ž

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jac shreds. I have first hand experience. On the other bits, verbs are good, as verbs. Grumbled, mumbled, whispered, giggled. Just not as supportive, or what one book I read referred to as things you can’t do at the same time. He rolled over, half asleep, mumbled, “Did you hear that?” Describing a dialogue event after it happened, as in “he mumbled, he said, mumbling doesn’t work. For me. Others may find it a useful technique.
    Bob mumbled through his big bite of Whopper, “No way, man.” Dialogue and direct action. A modified Jac example. “Holy mother of —” His elbow snapped, he screamed and the beast was on him. Find a place for said and an adverb in there that doesn’t slow it down or sound “written”. Verbs. Not adverbs. Said has its place. But…
    Jac refers, as do I, to all of that being cinematic content delivery. If you are writing about a location, or an event, then you are out of the realm of dialogue and can flood your writing with all the flowery minutia you can find. But dialogue is music. It has rhythm and melody that convey character and situation. The simplest gesture is all that’s needed sometimes, not blunt object physicality, or said. And they work for timing WAY better than said.
    Phil sighed, dabbed the spilled whiskey with his napkin. “I rarely drink, and I try to find a Russian River Chardonnay under thirty bucks that’s worth drinking when I do. Whiskey? I get in the same room with an open bottle and I get clumsy.” His chair scraped as he pushed away from table. He stood, slurred “Who wants to dance before I go try to put seven people and four guns in a small apartment in Huntington Beach? Without ‘said’ or ‘suddenly, the lights went out’ anywhere in sight.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s what SHE grumbled.
    That’s what SHE snorted.
    That’s what SHE giggled.
    That’s what SHE said.


    That’s what SHE said wins this one.

    Some self abuse aside, learning the basic rules of good writing is still worth it, I think.. I haven’t properly learned the rules and I experience the difference when I read the work of those of you who have learned the rules.
    Either way, keep writing or else we will lose another Whiskey Drinker.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s