“That’s Funny,” He Laughed

quillandqwerty cropI just read a quite interesting article about “The Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue”, i.e. what not to do when you’re writing fiction dialogue. And yes, I quite agree with the author on almost all points.

For example, a nasty writing habit is replacing “said” with other verbs like “queried” or “cajoled”. Or even worse, practising what they call “Impossible Verbing”.  “As a reader, that jolts me right out of the story,” I shuddered. ← There, that was one of those. One does not shudder a sentence. Try it – scrunch up your shoulders, let that shiver run over yourself from your head down your arms into your finger tips, and see if you get any sound out of that, let alone words. If you do, you’re a better vocal cord acrobat than I am.

However, there is one point on which I beg to differ with the authors of that article. Well, one sub-point. Under “Impossible Verbing”, they emphatically state that you should never use any verb other than a variant of “to say” as your speech tag, and they continue: “[E]ven more experienced writers can sometimes have a character laugh or sigh or cry a line that could not logically be produced in any of these ways.” That’s a statement I’ve heard more than once. But I’m sorry, just because people who lecture others on writing – uh, sorry, give out writing advice – like to repeat that statement that does not make it true. You can so laugh a line.

How would they suggest you describe it when someone says something while laughing? I presume the approved form would be “he said with a laugh” or something like that. But think about it: that’s actually quite a different thing than “laughing” the words. I don’t know about you, but laughing makes noise come from my vocal cords. Right? Hahaha. That’s sound. So, try this: ‘”That’s funny!” he said and laughed.’ What are you hearing in your head? Me, that arrives as: “That’s funny! Hahaha!” But now look at this: ‘”That’s funny!” he laughed.‘ Mental audio: “Thahahahat’s fuhuhuhunny!” Two different effects, no?

Okay, I’ll give you that you could write the latter as ‘”That’s funny!” he said laughingly.’ or even ‘with a laugh.’ But there’s a certain amount of clunkiness in that – too many “-ly” or “with a” would yank me out of the story more effectively than the occasional “he laughed” and “she sobbed”. (‘”You don’t love me!” she said sobbingly.’ Uh, no. Not with clunky language like that, I don’t.)

So, Impossible Verbing aside (she shrugged), I vote that laughing, sobbing, hissing, snarling, groaning, and sighing can take their occasional (very occasional) place alongside shouting and whispering in the lineup of acceptable synonyms for “saying”. After all, they do all make sounds. I will, however, draw the line at burping – yes, I know there are people who can burp the alphabet, but really, there are limits. If not of language, then of good taste.

“Life, the Universe, and Speech Tags,” she said. “Try laughing it sometimes.”