Let “Said” Be Enough

I’ve been rereading my much-loved copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers recently, in an attempt to get myself in a noveling mindset, and I think it might be working. While none of the material is new, a lot of it is stuff I hadn’t thought about in a while. Showing and not telling, characterization, foreshadowing, proportion….

One of the things that really stuck out to me this time, and I’ll have to remember during NaNoWriMo, is resisting the urge to dress up weak dialogue with fancy mechanics. For example,

“I doubt that’s true,” muttered Alice frustratedly. She was really angry.

“Why do you doubt my word?” yelled back Sam, growling.

“You don’t have a problem with lying to me, do you?” smirked Alice, laughing.

Sam gritted his teeth and shouted, “I like turtles!”

Not saying I write like that (thank goodness), but that’s an extreme exaggeration. My problem, and I’ve mentioned this before, is that I go overboard with adverbs. I love, love, love adverbs, and overuse them ALL THE TIME, usually subconsciously.

Whoa. See, I didn’t even mean to do that. Two adverbs back-to-back in a sentence about how I overuse adverbs. Irony for you.

Anyway, the book says that describing characters’ emotions right before or after dialogue, (i.e. “She was really angry”) insults the reader’s intelligence. If they’re literate enough to read your book, they can probably inference that Alice is angry just from the stand-alone dialogue. And if they can’t, then you’re doing something wrong.

If it helps, think about it this way: When you’re in an argument with your best friend, there’s no narrative voice in your head saying, “Now Jenna feels hurt. Now Jenna is mad at you.” But based on her body language, word choice, and the inflection in her sentences, you’ll know if she resents you.

The same applies to a book. Telling the readers how the characters feel, when it’s perfectly clear in the text, is going to offend them.

Going back to the adverbs (what I struggle with most), the writers of the book say that, again, the dialogue itself should be sufficient.

“Look, it’s over,” Todd said disapprovingly. “You’re not the same person anymore.”

“How can you say that?” Marie cried painfully. “I’ve always loved you!”

The dialogue here is terrible in itself, and you can bet that a writer that uses adverbs like this (aka me) thinks that they help to fix the problem. Instead, they make it worse. Try taking out the adverbs and replacing “cried” with “said”. (More on that later.)

“Look, it’s over,” Todd said. “You’re not the same person anymore.”

“How can you say that?” Marie said. “I’ve always loved you!”

Somewhat better. The emotion in the text, while dry and stilted, is allowed to come out a little more. And if we make it sound like they’re people instead of robots:

“It’s over,” Todd said. “You’re not the same person anymore.”

“How can you say that? For seven years I’ve loved you!” Tears welled in Marie’s eyes as she studied his face.

Still not perfect, but a heckuva lot better than the original. If you’ll notice, another thing I added to that one was a beat, or a sentence of action within the dialogue. That helps it to flow, so you’re not stuck with an endless stream of “he said, she said, I said, they said”.

The last thing to remember is that “said” should be the primary verb when writing dialogue. The book explains that this is because “Said… is an almost purely mechanical device–more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It’s absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant.”

“I have something to ask you,” Horace said. “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”

Chances are, when you read that sentence, you didn’t focus on the “Horace said” part; it was the dialogue that really stood out. That’s how it’s supposed to be, in almost all situations.

Exceptions the book lists for this is if you’re describing the way a character is speaking, and it’s not obvious right away from the dialogue itself.

“I hate you,” whispered John.

sends a different message than

“I hate you!” shouted John.

This is rare, though. Definitely the exception and not the rule. (And even the punctuation, comma versus exclamation point, gives you the idea.)

Let your dialogue carry your writing, and it’ll sound more natural and flowing.

About Aloha

A teen writer and future world ruler. Llamas make me happy.
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3 Responses to Let “Said” Be Enough

  1. ktlemonhead says:

    I read somewhere that you can use “noisy” dialogue tags if it adds or changes the dialogue in some way.

    Ex. “But I don’t want to!” Jamie whined.

    It’s obvious that she’s whining, so you could just use said.

    Another Ex. “I hope my mother doesn’t embarass me today,” Josh said cheerfully.

    Cheerfully adds to the dialogue. If it wasn’t there, the reader would assume that Josh was nervous, but he’s cheerful. That adds a layer to your dialogue. And layers make things better. I want a seven layer cake.

  2. bongirl says:

    It might be a bad thing, but I can often avoid that simply because I (try to) rarely use “said” or any other speaking words at all. (I don’t know why.)
    But then I use way too many adjectives/adverbs/uselessly complicated words in the rest of the text, and the passage becomes a mottled mess of text.

  3. Pingback: 7×7 Blog Award | Embracing Insanity

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