Friday, May 27, 2011

"He Says ... or Does He?"

As Katy points out in Wednesday's post, Elizabeth George and Elmore Leonard -- and many other experts on the writing craft -- opine that "said" is the best choice when seeking a dialogue tag, for the very reason that it doesn't compete with or interfere with the flow of the dialogue. And I concur. Does that mean I -- or they -- believe a writer MUST ONLY use the word "said" in writing dialogue? Absolutely not. Nicole, in her comment to Katy's post, said, "You know, "said" is boring. Repeatedly "said" is annoying." I agree. The point is not to ply the page with one "said" after another. It's to find a way to make your dialogue sing, to stand out from the masses, by writing dialogue that needs minimal attribution, and by employing action tags that don't simply replace dialogue tags for the sake of replacing dialogue tags, but that add to the story and character development.

Another writing book I'm partial to is Shut Up! He Explained by William Noble. Is that the best title ever, or what? In Chapter 8, He Says ... or Does He? Noble writes that Harold Ross, unpredictable and somewhat zany editor of The New Yorker, developed editorial rules for manuscripts. Noble writes (forgive the lengthy passage):
One of the rules ... was that a passage of dialogue is best followed by "said." Anything else --"shouts" or "exclaims" or "retorts," for example -- is just wasted motion. No verb, in other words, should substitute for "said." It got me thinking ... "Stuff it in your ear!" he ... said? Wouldn't "retort" be better? ... I thought further ... A writer should be able to phrase dialogue so the impact of the words would be clear. "Go to [hades]!" he shouted -- could be redundancy. "Go to [hades]!" itself is a strongly worded statement, and why do we need "he shouted"? Of course, maybe we don't need any modifying phrase at all. "Go to [hades]!" could stand by itself. No "shout," no "said," no nothing. The reader's imagination could probably conjure a fitting modifier.

Today, even The New Yorker allows substitutions for "said." Yet the rule shouldn't be dismissed because [it] ... had considerable merit. A writer should be able to create dialogue that doesn't rely on the descriptive modifier; the words a character speaks should carry the emotion in which the words are spoken:

"You-you aren't my dead uncle's long-lost great-great grandson!"

"Oh Everett, I love these children so ..."

In the first sentence do we need modifiers like he gasped, or he blurted out ...? Wouldn't he said work as well? Perhaps we don't need to say anything -- maybe that would work even better.

In the second sentence, do we need she purred, she whispered --? We could insert she said, and it wouldn't detract from the impact of the dialogue. Then, too, perhaps nothing at all would be even better.

There are no precise rules on when to use "he said," when to use a substitute, and when to use nothing ... Generally, however, we can say this:

"he/she said" is the basic modifier, and it should be used at least three-quarters of the time any modifier is used."
That is my belief, and the principle by which I write dialogue. I believe those 1% of writers that Katy mentioned in her post -- that 1% that outshines the average writer -- are not the ones that find a variety of substitutes for the word "said," but rather they are the ones who write dialogue so expertly that attributes are not simply unnecessary, they get in the way. Consider this passage from Kathryn Stockett's The Help:
My phone ring, making me jump. Before I can even say hello, I hear Minny. She working late tonight.

"Miss Hilly sending Miss Walters to the old lady home. I got to find myself a new job. And you know when she going? Next week."

"Oh, no, Minny."

"I been looking, call ten ladies today. Not even a speck a interest."

I am sorry to say I ain't surprised. "I ask Miss Leefolt first thing tomorrow do she know anybody need help."

"Hang on," Minny say. I hear old Miss Walter talking and Minny say, "What you think I am? A chauffeur? I ain't driving you to no country club in the pouring rain."

Sides stealing, worse thing you'n do for your career as a maid is have a smart mouth. Still, she such a good cook, sometimes it makes up for it.

"Don't you worry, Minny. We gone find you somebody deaf as a doe-knob, just like Miss Walter."

"Miss Hilly been hinting around for me to come work for her."

"What?" I talk stern as I can: "Now you look a here, Minny. I support you myself fore I let you work for that evil lady."

"Who you think you talking to, Aibileen? A monkey? I might as well go work for the KKK. And you know I never take Yule May's job away."

"I'm sorry, Lordy me." I just get so nervous when it come to Miss Hilly. "I call Miss Caroline over on Honeysuckle, see if she know somebody. And I call Miss Ruth, she so nice it near bout break your heart. Used to clean up the house ever morning so I didn't have nothing to do but keep her company. Her husband died a the scarlet fever, mm-hmm."

"Thank you, A. Now come on, Miss Walters, eat up a little green bean for me." Minny say goodbye and hang up the phone.
There's only one dialogue tag in that passage, yet it's not at all difficult to follow who's speaking. And the information gained by what's woven throughout the dialogue goes so far beyond what any dialogue tag could accomplish. That alone is my point, why I beat the drum so regularly about the careful use of dialogue tags.

We all want to rise above the masses. We all want our work to stand apart. Rules will never accomplish that. But Katy is 100% correct when she says, "An author who learns the rules takes a great first step away from amateur status toward publication. An author who learns when it's better than okay to break those rules makes great galumphing strides in the direction of art."


Jan Cline said...

I almost never use a "said" tag. Ive always thought they were not necessary. When I read, I assume or imagine the tag, so why write it? Unless you have a conversation that is confusing without it - and even then, Id rather see the dialogue or scene written so that you don't need tags. It's an interesting topic - I know most writers have a strong preference.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

You are making me want to reread that book! Miss those characters.

I wish I could talk stern as I can to Blogger right now. I can't comment on my own posts and neither can many others. Urgh.

It's all about connecting for me, so this is frustrating.

(I'll get over it.)

Happy weekend!
~ Wendy

Nicole said...

"The point is not to ply the page with one "said" after another. It's to find a way to make your dialogue sing, to stand out from the masses, by writing dialogue that needs minimal attribution, and by employing action tags that don't simply replace dialogue tags for the sake of replacing dialogue tags, but that add to the story and character development."

True, Sharon. And I meant in my comment on Katy's post that I agreed with the one percent opinion, not that I occupied that esteemed place in my own writing. I prefer an occasional dialogue tag besides said because volume cannot always be communicated and can be essential for clarification in conversation.

So many of the rules come across as absolute and are repeated in books, on blogs, at conferences, etc. I like authors to take dares, to vary in voice and style. Break out of the mold. That's all.

When writers cling to the rules and use those rules to judge writing, we get repetition of formulaic. And quite frankly, just like with the said attribute, it's boring.

Anonymous said...

Jan, I agree. Dialogue written in such a way that it doesn't need tags is preferable.

Wendy, don't even get me started on Blogger.

Nicole, you are so right in every point you make. Rules in writing can only be guidelines, and writers must break out of the mold if they want to be noticed -- exactly like Kathryn Stockett did with The Help. But rules as guidelines can help strengthen our writing. The truth is, you could write a novel following every rule to a T and end up with a novel that is unremarkable. STORY is everything. And when you add strong writing to STORY, you have a winner. Thank you for the stirring discussion you always bring to our blog.

Zan Marie said...

I agree. I use nothing but said, but I use it very rarely, letting the context carry the speaker's ID instead.

Did my comment go through? I'm having trouble with blogger and commenting.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Zan. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I think the same principle applies in poetry and indeed in all art: Once you've learned to work within strictures, then you are qualified to work outside them, because your training gave you a sense of mental and artistic support.

I found this to be so true in the poetry classes I took at the University of New Mexico. Aside from shock value and a few arresting phrases, the free verse of most people was "scattered" in its approach and execution, while those who had been trained and practiced in such things as sonnets were much more focused and disciplined in their free verse. The reader was more satisfied reading it. And of course, good free verse isn't unstructured at all. It just doesn't have an outwardly-imposed prior structure.

Embrace said...

This is always a good reminder. Thanks!

However I wish this rule didn't exist. I think said is boring. The English language is so colourful and creative it seems a shame to limit our prose to 'said'. So as a writer when I edit I try to eliminate the 'saids' so it doesn't bug ME.

Judith Marshall said...

I just attended a workshop presented by a published author and writing teacher that confirmed you should only use said or asked. Hopefully, rules are made to be broken.

Judith Marshall
Author of "Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever, optioned for the big screen.