Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When All is Said and Done

When All is Said and Done

When I have a few minutes of time I enjoy reading some of the writing discussions on Linked-In. The other day someone mentioned Elmore Leonard’s belief that the only dialogue tag that should ever be used is the word, said.

Some people agreed and some disagreed. What do you think?

So since it was an interesting topic, here is my two cents.

Don’t be afraid of the word, said.

My favorite class in high school was Creative writing. I wanted to be a writer so I listened when my teacher told us to be creative and find other words instead of repeating the word said. I came up with things like—

“Sorry, I’m late,” Frank quickly apologized as he dropped a kiss on her head and took his seat.
“Where have you been?” Jessie snapped, angrily brushing back her hair. “I was about to leave.”
“It’s been a busy morning,” he hedged as he picked up his menu. “I lost track of the time.”
“I called your cell phone,” she stated cooly.
“Seriously?” he asked surprised.
“You never picked up. Why?” she demanded.

What I wasn’t taught in school, and that may have been one of the reasons my stories were rejected by agents and publishers, is that the word said is as invisible as a period. That transparency makes it elegant and graceful. Other words like apologized, snapped, hedged, asked, and stated, draw attention to themselves and distract the reader from the impact of the dialogue.

I don’t know how you read that bit, but I found my eye wanting to jump ahead to the next bit of dialogue and not even read the speech tags.

At the same time, if there is more than one speaker, dialogue attributions will be needed, but only to clarify to the reader who is saying what. Once we know who is talking we don’t need he said/she said.

Another thing about using said, is that it’s a stand-alone word. It doesn’t need ‘ly’ adverbs to make it stronger. If your dialogue doesn’t need props don’t use them. Using props when they aren’t needed make your dialogue sound weak, even when it isn’t. Never explain dialogue.

Let the characters dialogue and actions show the story. Make your word choices, style, and cadence of speech as distinctive as you can for each character so even if there two people talking, the reader will know who is speaking. Use your speaker attributions only to keep clear for the reader who is talking.

“Sorry, I’m late.” Frank dropped a kiss on Jessie’s head and took his seat.
A wisp of hair fell across her brow. She slapped it away. “Where have you been? I was about to leave.”
“It’s been a busy morning.” He picked up his menu. “I lost track of the time.”
“I called your cell phone.”
“You never picked up. Why?”

I like version two better. It’s not as edgy as Elmore Leonard and I don’t get it right all the time. But like all elements of craft, with practice it gets better and hopefully my use of speaker attributions will improve with my next book.


Kathy Otten


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He made her fall in love with him, then he took it all away.



Tina Donahue said...

I try not to use dialogue tags unless I absolutely have to - like when you have several characters in a scene and you have to differentiate who said what.

However, I do believe there are times when a different dialogue tag than 'said' makes the story better.

It's all a matter of balance.

One thing I've learned in writing - never say never.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Tina,
Absolutely! Never say never. Like all elements of craft it's another tool that creates a certain effect and the writer chooses how they want to use that effect to best tell their story. I also use other words aside from said and every writer has a different voice. I sure don't want anyone to think we all should write dialogue like Elmore Leonard.

Kathy Otten said...

My comment didn't go through, so I'll try to remember what I wrote.
Hi Tina,
Absolutely! Never say never. I also use words other than said, but I try not to. Its use, or not use, is just a tool of the craft. It creates and effect and the writer is the one to choose how the use of that effect will enhance his novel. Everyone has a unique voice and I hope no thinks I want everyone to write like Elmore Leonard. :)

lyndialexander said...

"What a great post!" she expostulated.... :)

jean hart stewart said...

Very interesting column. Lots to think about here,

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Lyndi,
Expostulated! Love that word. :)

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Lyndi,
Expostulated! Love that word. :)

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Jean,
Nice to see you. The fun thing about writing is that there is always something to explore and think about, new ways to do things and different elements of craft to develop. I'm always learning. :)

Fiona McGier said...

I tend to stay away from advice that insists what you should NEVER do, or what you should ALWAYS do. Writing is so idiosyncratic that you can't possibly cover all exigencies in arbitrary rules that someone at some time thought were necessary.

That being said, I've been told I need to avoid big words, which I tend to enjoy using. Or as the tee shirt says, "Eschew obfuscation!" I'm still learning how to put that into practice. ;-D

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Fiona,
You could always create a character who loves to use big words. You could have some fun with it when no one knows what he/she is talking about.