Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Don't "Breathe" a Word :: The Perils of Lazy Dialogue

There are a half-hundred words that you can use when you're writing dialogue to describe how words were said.  Lines of dialogue can be shouted, screamed, whispered, thundered, blurted, whined, exulted, cried, clarified, called, uttered, ejaculated, exclaimed, declared, denied, crowed, and breathed.

Don't ever use any of them.  They're lazy and, more importantly,  they sound like writing.

To explain, I'll refer you back to this post about Elmore Leonard's iconic list of 10 rules for effective fiction writing.  I'd summarize the Leonard's list (and my own feelings on the subject) by saying "Don't be a lazy writer or assume you have a lazy reader."  

Leonard sums them up by saying "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." Which amounts to the same thing, really.

Rule number three on Leonard's list is "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue".  Personally, I double the lexicon of acceptability by including "asked".  Just don't "breathe" a word. Say it.  Just say it... and then don't use an adverb to modify it (which is rule #4).

Why all the hate?

Because the word "said" is descriptive.  All the rest are prescriptive.

A descriptive word "said" or "asked" tells us what happened.  A prescriptive word like "breathed" or "exulted" or any of the rest tells us how to read the sentence that we just finished.  That's important: prescriptive words come at the end of sentences.  So if your reader obeys you, they have to go back and reread.  Talk about breaking the flow of the story.

Put another way, they're stage directions, and if you want to write stage directions, write a play.

The laziest thing a writer can do is tell the reader everything. The real work of writing is to decide what to leave out, and the real work of writing dialogue is crafting sentences that carry themselves, free of the need for phrases like "he responded snarkily" or "she shouted angrily". If you want a snarky, or shouty tone, use snarky, shouty sentences.

First of all, unless you overuse them., the exclamation point should tell your reader the character is shouting and the word choice and simple, short declarative sentence carries across the anger.  "Shouted angrily" is made redundant by writing the sentence correctly in the first place.

Does this mean you should never use "shouted" or anything else?  No. Like any rule, this is one that is meant to be broken carefully, wisely, and with malice aforethought.  But know that you're doing it and why.  In certain situations "whispered" might be necessary.  At times, I suppose "shouted" might even be necessary.  But I'll go out on a limb and say that the rest of that list isn't.  Not ever.

If you've read Howard Carter, you know that on some level I'm a stone thrower living in a glass house. Keep in mind that it was a first draft, but at least in that book, I seemed to be particularly fond of "whispered".

One of the first things I will do when going from that first draft you read to the second is remove those instances when I got lazy and gave too much stage direction.

The later it is at night and the more tired I am as I write, the more likely it is that these things are going to happen.  Which is why we have rough drafts that we don't show to anyone.  Because at some point we have to come back in the cold, clear light of day and find all the parts that sound like writing and rewrite them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).