“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.”

12 thoughts on ““That’s Funny,” He Laughed”

  1. You can’t really laugh a sentence. Have you tried speaking while laughing? Your body is expelling air erratically so it’s rather difficult to talk. You can speak and then laugh. But I would be amazed at the lungs of any character who can speak and laugh simultaneously.

    The more major problem with “That’s funny!” he laughed is that it’s redundant. It’s not even the speech tags that make it so. Why not just have the character laugh? Readers don’t need a character to point out when something is funny. If they laugh, the reader will know that they find whatever it is funny. And really, who says “that’s funny?” It doesn’t sound normal. To me, this actually falls under on the nose dialogue more than impossible verbing.

    1. I beg to differ. *You* may not be able to laugh words; I do it all the time. Perhaps we have different definitions of “laughter”. I also say “That’s funny” quite frequently, so yes, it is a normal phrase.

      As for ‘”That’s funny!” he laughed’ being redundant, I’ll give you that. It was just the first example that popped into my head as a laughable quote to make my point. So, how about this instead: ‘”That’s so sad,” she laughed’; or ‘”That’s funny,” he sobbed’. There, the way of speaking is at odds with the content of the words, and we need the specific descriptor of the tone to get the meaning.

      But, as I said, it’s only rarely that I’d want to use those. For the most part, (she asserted,) good old “said” is still the speech tag of choice.

      1. We clearly have different definitions.

        In both cases, the context should allow the reader to infer the meaning. Unless this is coming in the very first scene of a novel, the reader should also know the character and understand a sarcastic remark or ironic quips. I would actually even go further and say that both of those examples could be described using actions rather than speech tags. ‘ “That’s so sad.” But she laughed.’ No speech tag and the action does the exact same thing without making the reader cringe and wonder if the words can actually be laughed.

        These aren’t so much rules as guides to clean prose. *You* might not have a problem with impossible verbing but the majority of readers will. If the audience is only yourself then, yes, fine, write whatever way you please, but you might find larger audiences will be put off.

      2. I don’t think you got my point. I’m not defending Impossible Verbing, like “shrugging” a sentence. But I do think there are ways to describe HOW someone says something that go beyond mere “saying”, that show the TONE of what’s said. I’d imagine you don’t object to “whisper” and “shout” by way of denoting quiet or loud “saying”? My point is that laughing, sobbing, hissing, snarling, groaning etc. are just as valid to use as descriptors of sound of speech. They convey non-verbal communication in a way bare speech cannot.

        My guess is that you and I write and read very different kinds of fiction (as a matter of fact, I know that’s the case, looking over your list of favourites on your website). What is “best” in one genre might not be most suited for “the majority of readers” in another.

  2. Curious, I’ve never thought about Impossible Verbing before (which means now that I DO think of it, I know it’s something of which I am guilty). I guess I tend to think of it as operating more as shorthand – instead of: ‘”I can’t bear it,” she said with a shudder’; ‘”I can’t bear it,” she shuddered’ reads more cleanly to me.

    But I can also see how it would jolt a person who is not so much of a skimming-over-the-surface-of-the-words reader out of the story. *makes a note to take out Impossible Verbs in all WIPS*

    1. I’m with you – Impossible Verbing doesn’t jolt me nearly as much as Said Bookisms (‘”Don’t use those words,” he pontificated’), and they sound cleaner. There’s an easy fix for them, though, without losing the shorthand: you don’t need to take them all out; just change the punctuation: ‘”I can’t bear it.” She shuddered.’ Nice, clean & visual.

  3. I don’t like rules for writing — as you are well aware, I’m sure. I’ve seen the ‘never modify the word ‘said’ with an adverb’ rule and the ‘kill all your adverbs’ rule and the ‘never say in dialogue what you can say with prose’ and the ‘everything a reader needs to know about a character can be learned through dialogue’ and ‘never start two consecutive sentences with the same word’ rule, and so on and so on and blah blah blah.
    I don’t like it. My favourite fiction to read (and write) has a scene-by-scene rhythm constructed by word combinations that stutter, stop, rush or flow depending on what the scene is depicting. Sometimes those word choices shake me out of the story and give me a necessary moment to breathe. Often that brief breath pulls me in deeper.
    So, yeah. No rules. Just writing. There’s a glorious downbeat, there. 🙂

    1. Yeah, the adverbs thing is another pet peeve of mine. There is a huge difference between “”That’s great,” he said”; ‘”That’s great,” he said enthusiastically’; and ‘”That’s great,” he said sadly.’ If you cut out all adjectives and verbs from writing, for the most part you’d be left with something resembling road signs, or at best Cliff Notes, not a story worth reading.

      However, all those rules do have a place in teaching beginners how to write. I don’t know how often I’ve looked at a badly written piece and said out loud “Show, don’t tell!” or “Subject-verb agreement!!” Once you’ve got all those rules mastered, *then* you can go around breaking them with impunity – on purpose, not because you don’t know any better.

      1. I can honestly say I’ve never concerned myself much with ‘subject-verb agreement’ and ‘show don’t tell’, and I’ve been teaching adults to read and write since 2005. I’ve read badly written work that was grammatically impeccable and mechanically fractured prose-poems that were so good I literally shuddered. Writing rules, for me, are for exam essays and some (not all) scholarly work. It is useful to know them, or at least know of them, when writing fiction but I don’t think it’s essential.

      2. I think the reason you don’t concern yourself with stuff like that is because you do it instinctively. There is a vast difference between someone who writes (or does anything) badly because they just lack skills, and someone who purposely “breaks the rules” to do what they want to do. A beginning piano student who keeps hitting the wrong notes is a different thing from Schönberg’s 12-tone music.

  4. That’s probably part of it, for sure. I’ve been writing for a long time. When I’m working with adult learners, though, the strictures of writing rules are major obstacles to them getting anything on paper at all — something that I think is true for fledgling novelists as well. We get worried about how we should be writing, and that worry prevents us from, well, writing. Or, worse yet, allows us to write but doesn’t allow us to fly with it. And what’s the point of writing if we can’t fly? So, I hear what you’re saying, and I don’t entirely disagree with you. I just think there is wisdom letting the words take you. I save ‘the rules’ for the ugly work of editing or proofreading and apply them as sparingly as possible.

    1. Yes. You’re talking about people who’ve experienced ‘the rules’ not as a guide rail to keep them on a safe path to climb to greater heights, but as a stick to beat them with to keep them in the valley. So, thoroughly agree with you there.

      Also, quite frequently, ‘the rules’ are chiefly propounded for the purpose of showing the superiority of the preacher over the adverb-using rabble – “more grammatical than thou” – and that’s the attitude I really can’t stick, when so many REALLY superior writers break them with impunity to great effect.

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