Friday, January 29, 2010

The Invisible Word

We've not mentioned all month long what our giveaway book is for January, so here it is. Everyone who comments on this post between now and Sunday will be entered in a drawing for a copy of Elizabeth George's Write Away, one of my favorite books on the craft of writing.
One of the pleasures I've had since becoming a published writer is the opportunity to judge writing contests. I love reading the entries -- which range from a budding writer's baby steps to a writer ready for publication -- and offering counsel where I can. I've also been asked on occasion to read a full manuscript by an aspiring author. I find that most new writers make a common mistake in dialogue that identifies their work as that of a novice. It comes in the form of dialogue tags.
Tag lines are words that precede, interrupt or follow dialogue, to indicate the speaker. The preferred tag, if there has to be a tag at all, is simply he said/she said. But in an effort to use variety, many beginning writers write something like, "I love it!" she enthused. Or "I hate it!" he groused. There are two glaring mistakes in both examples. First, the exclamation point should not be necessary to express the emotion of the statement. The statement should stand on its own. Second, enthused and groused and other words like them should never, ever be used in tag lines.
Or how about this: "I don't know how you could say such a thing," she complained. "Oh, really? And why is that?" he questioned. "Because, I love it," she frowned. Ah me. The first line of dialogue is obviously a complaint, so she complained is redundant, as is he questioned at the end of the question in the second line of dialogue. And in the third line, well, it's impossible to frown anything you say. Words can be accompanied by a frown, a frown can stand on its own without any words whatsoever, but words cannot be frowned. So beware the verbs you use as tags.
A first manuscript I recently read for a friend of a friend made me aware of this problem like nothing I've ever read. The author used the following tag lines in just a few short pages: she agreed; he remarked; she sighed; he sang; she nodded; he answered; she commented; he soothed; she ventured; he grinned; she sulked; he exclaimed!
Oy vay! Never once did he say or she say. Just as you cannot frown words, you cannot nod them, soothe them, venture them, grin them, or sulk them.
Elizabeth George, in her exceptional book Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life (a book every aspiring writer should read and read and re-read), writes:
"Sometimes a writer just starting out thinks that she needs to be especially creative with her tag lines, believing that the repetition of said lacks snap and personality. Actually, said is a little miracle word that no one should abandon. What happens when a writer uses said in a tag line is that the reader's eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb -- providing it's the verb said -- simply gets discarded ...
But this isn't the case of all those fancier tag lines: snarl, moan, snap, hiss, wail, whine, whimper, shout, groan, sneer, growl and all the rest of them. These call attention to themselves, and while you might use them judiciously -- although, frankly, I discourage you from using them at all -- must use them with the realization that they will leap out at the reader. The situation is this: When the writing (and of course by that I mean the writer) is really doing its job, the reader will be aware that someone is shouting, snarling, thundering, moaning, or groaning. The scene will build up to it so the writer doesn't have to use any obvious words to indicate the manner in which the speaker is speaking.
I have another book that deals with all aspects of dialogue, which I purchased years ago because of its title alone: Shut Up! He Explained. Is that great or what? William Noble concurs with Ms. George when he writes:
"... a passage of dialogue is best followed by "said." Anything else -- "shouts" or "exclaims" or "retorts," for example -- is just wasted motion. No verb ... should substitute for said ... A writer should be able to phrase dialogue so the impact of the words would be clear."
Said is an invisible, miracle, stealth word. It does its job without drawing attention to itself. When writing dialogue, do as much as you can without tag lines. Instead of writing, I'm going to the beach house on Thursday," I said. Consider "I'm going to the beach house on Thursday." I don't tell her the rest because I'm still trying to fool even me. Not only do you identify the speaker, you advance the story at the same time.
Dialogue is the heart of good fiction. Stilted, canned or cluttered dialogue will kill an otherwise great story. We've listed a number of excellent books on our Resources page that address the topic of dialogue. You're sure to want these in your writer's library.
Do you have any questions about dialogue we can talk about? Have any really good examples of dialogue? How about some really bad ones?


Sarah Forgrave said...

I love the "Shut up! He explained" title...Too funny.

I'm currently reading a novel that I love, but my one complaint is that the author has long stretches of dialogue without any tags or action beats (is that the right term?). Sometimes fifteen lines of dialogue will pass without any indication of who's speaking. Even though there are only two characters talking, I've had to backtrack several times to get them straight. The one thing I do like about this technique is it makes for snappy conversation at the appropriate moments.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Dialogue is hard for me. I've been learning a lot about it and know I'm a lot stronger at writing it than I was. Thanks for this post!

Nicole said...

I know: I'm always the boo-bird. I disagree with the blanket: Just use said if anything. I especially don't like when an author (and I mean good authors) use "said" after a question. C'mon.

I think volume is often not indicated in dialogue. I think anger can be subtle in words and an occasional imaginative dialogue tag does work effectively.

Blanket "rules" bug me. Sorry. I simply disagree. And I think, no matter which quality instructor suggests or implores them, the rules fly out the window amidst creative efforts, individual styles, and unique voices.

I'm all for exception-al writing. A rebel, I guess.

I do concur that beginners tend to overuse tags or use them unnecessarily or incorrectly in which case they stand out and not only detract but distract, but I don't like the blanket-wrong approach to "the rules".

Sorry: JMO

Heather said...

Dialogue is a tough one for me. I find it difficult to make it not sound forced or phony.

Anonymous said...

I too have to backtrack when I come across long passages of dialogue with no tags or beats whatsoever. The point of tags is to keep straight who's speaking, so they have an important place in our writing. Beats work very well to identify speaker AND move the story along.

Nicole, I agree, there are always exceptions to the rules, but it's important to first know the rules. Certainly, "said" can be replaced with other tags, but carefully and in moderation. "Said" following a question takes the rule to extremes, but "asked" is unnecessary following a question mark. The punctuation speaks for itself. So if an identifier is necessary, a beat comes in handy.

Dialogue is hard. To be good, it can't imitate real-life conversation. Jim Scott Bell has a great section on dialogue in "Plot & Structure", another book mentioned on our Resources page.

Tarissa said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog entry. I've never noticed what a good word that 'said' is, and that it is better than using other 'descriptive verbs'. From now on, I'll really keep this tidbit in mind while writing.

Carla Gade said...

I used to be such a creative dialogue tagger! Now when I go back and read those early pages I penned I laugh! I knew I was starting to get "it" with the "rules" when I could go back and notice what I did wrong. I look forward to spending some time with some of those early works and making them shine.

Diane Marie Shaw said...

This post made me go to my WIP and check it out. Ouch, it needs work on this. Thanks for the reminder.

Laura J. Davis said...

Thank you for this excellent post. I have one question - Is there a rule book for all the rules of writing?

Just when I think I'm doing something right, something changes. For example: The pronoun for God is no longer capitalized. Instead of He it's he. Also, just yesterday on another well-known writer's blog (I won't mention who), the writer said to stop using the tag 'said'.

I'm so confused I feel like I have to go back to school!

Steve G said...

"I still capitalize God's pronouns," he said largely.

The Biblical writers should have read this post... "and Jesus said, "verily..."

Then there was the dyslexic man that walked into a bra... wait, that has no dialogue.

Then there are the Tom Swifties... "I'm losing my hair," Tom bawled.

Anonymous said...

Not signing in to get the book...couldn't use it anyway. But just had to comment on the pic of the 6 of taking great pleasure in thinking of all the trouble you guys could get into together....look out world!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Heather. You're the winner of Elizabeth George's Write Away. I know you're going to love it. Please email us with your mailing address and I'll get this sent off to you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments on this post. Yesterday I attended a day-long intensive fiction workshop with author James Scott Bell. It was outstanding -- no surprise. Wish you all could have been there. One section was on this very subject. "Said" as a dialogue tag, blended with action beats for variety, is the least intrusive way to identify who's speaking in dialogue.

Laura, I'm with Steve. I usually capitalize He/Him/His when referring to God. Just my own personal preference. And the writing experts I most value agree "said" is the way to go. That's not to say you can't have other tags on occasion, but they should be the exception and not the rule. And skip the adverbs except on extremely rare occasions.

To everyone I say, when in doubt study the writers you like best and draw your own conclusions. Thanks again for your comments.

myletterstoemily said...

i finally found a blog for writers that actually teaches
us! " woo hoo," she said.

Anonymous said...

Myletterstoemily: So glad you "found" us. We look forward to your input on this blog.