Writing Rules Re-Quibbled

I was reading another post by a “writing blogger” earnestly explaining the difference between showing and telling, when something occurred to me. The post repeated all that stuff about using “strong” verbs to show, with an example of how much better it is to write “She bubbled with excitement,” than the boring “She was excited.”  “Bubbled” is viewed as a strong verb and therefore desirable, while “was” is pale and weak.

But what about that other often-quoted rule — Never use a word other than “said” to attribute dialogue. Words such as mumbled, yelled, whispered, replied, declared and opined are frowned upon.

Now I ask — why? Why is it OK for the character to bubble with excitement, but not OK for her to mutter or opine? Why is “said” good and “was” bad?

My own take on all this? Far be it from me to add to all those self-contradicting Rules for Writers, but I think it’s a mistake to declare any word or writing practice taboo. “Was” and its variants are excellent one-syllable words invisible to the reader’s eye. They do the job admirably when the point of a sentence is to deliver information succinctly. Colourful words (bubbled, plunged, darted, crumbled) are indispensable in situations where the writer wants to be cinematic, to create a mind-movie for the reader. Knowing when to use which technique is one of the skills a writer needs to develop.

And finally — this making up of writing rules is sort of a weird little niche some people have wandered into, possiby a sub-category of “those that can’t do must teach,” Elmore Leonard notwithstanding. (Moreover, I suspect that when a writer is asked to supply rules and tips for other writers to follow, they will inevitably come up with a few. But that doesn’t mean those are the only rules worth following).

So endeth the screed on this Boxing Day. (I remember hearing once that Boxing Day was called that because boxing matches were held somewhere on the day after Christmas. Not true, but then there’s post-Christmas crabbiness induced by fighting the crowds for Boxing Day bargains — not something I would ever do, but perhaps it explains the combative tone of this post).