for writers and readers….

Creative Writing Exercise Number 5 from the Archive

he said, she saidBestselling crime writer Elmore Leonard, who died last month aged 87, had 10 Rules for Writing. Number three was Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.

He argued that said is far less intrusive than the tags we were encouraged to use at school such as grumbled, gasped, cautioned etc etc. School wanted us to wider our vocabulary, but now that we have we should go back to the simplicity of he said or she said to identify who is speaking.

It seems to me that there has to be at least two exceptions to Elmore Leonard’s rule. The first is when the reader couldn’t be expected to pick up the way a statement is spoken in any other way. This often applies to sound: he whispered; she murmured. The second exception is when it is plain silly, as in the sentence:

 ‘Help! I’m on fire,’ she said running out of the room.

At the very least, she shouted; I suspect she screamed or yelled. Maybe even shrieked.

However, the great thing about he said or she said is that the reader is so used to seeing it on the page that they skim over it, only registering who is speaking. The fluidity – the quality that makes a story as easy to read as a Crème Brûlée is to eat – isn’t disrupted.

But do we have to jettison all those other words such as simpered and sniggered, bellowed and blustered, replied and responded? I thought I’d put Elmore’s rule to the test in this short story.


I never did have an orgasm, she admitted
I knew that, he answered
Somehow I never imagined that would bother you, she assumed
Better get that chip off your shoulder, he advised
The stench of burning martyr isn’t very attractive, he added.

 I suppose the crunch came that night, you must remember. It was at the restaurant, you know the one, in the High Street, she babbled.
Where all the waitresses fancied me, he boasted

In you dreams, she chuckled
You always put me down, he complained

I think I fell out of love with you over the lasagne, she decided
In that case have the decency to pay half the bill, he demanded

It wasn’t the food, she explained.
I didn’t imagine it was! he exclaimed.

I suddenly saw someone else in your face, she fantasised. Someone I didn’t like.
A little too much Chianti perhaps, he hinted.
Whatever do you mean? she hissed.
You should listen to yourself sometimes, he grunted.
I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, she insisted.
I didn’t mean to cause offence, he lied.

There was a time when you wouldn’t have been so cruel, she murmured.
We both behaved better back then, he noted.
I have not done anything with which to reproach myself, she objected.
I can see this going on all night, he predicted.
What make you say that? she questioned.
Just experience, he reflected.

Oh, would you like it go on…all…night? She simpered.
We’re separated now, he told her.
Yes, but there’s still time to reconsider, she urged.
Not if you were the last woman on earth, he vowed.
Why are you being so mean to me? she wailed.

Ow! He yelped, holding the side of his face where she had left a hand print.
We just bring out the worst each other, she zoned into the heart of the problem.

I should have said something before, she said.
Yes, he said. We should have talked.

Said feels pretty good after all that…what do you think?

We Should Have Talked (c) Bridget Whelan 2013

This sort-of exercise first appeared on September 2nd 2013

2 comments on “Creative Writing Exercise Number 5 from the Archive

  1. robbiesinspiration
    August 6, 2017

    An interesting piece of advice, Bridget. I does go against what we were taught at school but it does make sense.

    • bridget whelan
      August 8, 2017

      I know, but at school we were being encouraged to explore language and widen our vocabulary. We can’t start off with just ‘said’ in our backpack of words, but, as adults, we can choose the simplest one, except when it’s inappropriate or we don’t want to…

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This entry was posted on August 6, 2017 by in Muse and tagged , , , , .


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