Now then writing fans. Welcome to another edition of Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. Some thoughts on the art of dialogue attribution this week. If you’re working on a novel and would like me to cast my beady eye over your first page, in public like, on this here blog, send me your first page and title – no explanatory material please – to the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. You can find previous posts here.
I’ve got a whole bunch of first pages in a holding pattern, getting ready to land, and I’m looking forward to strafing them with the AA guns and serving you up the smoking remains. This week, however, I’m balls-deep in editing the horrorshow of lexical pratfalls that is my own novel (yes, I’m redrafting again – no one can accuse me of not practising what I preach!) so I thought I’d touch on one very specific aspect of our writing practice, with some suggestions of quick fixes, before we return next week to the operating theatre. Enjoy.
‘Don’t Turn Your Nose Up At “Said”,’ The Author Ejaculated Sneeringly
‘Of course!’ said the latter surprisingly, ‘that is the reason!’
Mr Michael Monsor drew a deep breath, then remarked challengingly, ‘The reason, may I ask, of what?’
‘The reason why matter, once started, never ceases to move!’ responded Collins promptly.
Mr Monsor blinked at him. ‘And the reason is–?’ he prompted freezingly.
– The ‘Holding-Up’ Of Major Stanton, S. Beresford Lucas
I realise that you’ll find this particular nugget of writing wisdom in most how-to manuals, so you’d think it would be obvious. Based on the manuscripts I see from students and aspiring authors, the obvious is in no danger of penetrating the public consciousness. Either everyone ignores the manuals, or overdetermined dialogue tags are writers’ number one blind spot.
(not you, of course. Oh no. For you, dear reader, dear, wondrous exception, o genius-in-waiting, the more commonplace writing commandments in this blog will serve as mere reminders – after all, when your thoughts aspire daily to the loftiest incarnations of the artform, petty matters such as not writing like an absolute bell-end are easily overlooked)
You know what really twists my nipples? When gobshites in writing groups loudly opine ‘well it’s no longer fashionable to use words other than “said” in your dialogue tags, or adverbs, but the trend will probably reverse in a few years’. No! Wrong. You lose, sir.
‘Said’ is a plucky little workhorse of a verb – elegant, unobtrusive. The reader’s eye slides right off it, leaving him or her to focus on the content between the speech marks. If it’s not clear from the words used and the context that Martin ‘yelled angrily’, stepping in afterwards to editorialise cannot rectify what is primarily a failing of the dialogue itself, especially since the damage has already been done. If, on the other hand, it is clear that he ‘yelled angrily’ (perhaps due to the exclamation mark, perhaps due to Martin’s liberal use of the sobriquet ‘chinless bastard’) then there’s no need to underline the fact.
Dialogue tags like ‘she asked’ or ‘he replied’ are almost never permissible. We know it’s a question because of the question mark. We know it’s a reply, because it comes after a question. We’re not morons. Don’t clutter the text with words other than ‘said’. Don’t snag the reader’s attention with prissy synonyms.
I’ll admit the possibility of exceptions, providing you promise not to take it as carte blanche to empurple your dialogue – I don’t mind the odd ‘whispered’ here and there. After all, it’s not always possible to tell a whisper from word choice and context. If you want to be tricksy, a dialogue tag like ‘he lied’ can give a little nod to the reader, flipping our understanding of the previous sentence. This only works if, on a first read, we would have assumed the speaker was being sincere – otherwise it’s just stating the obvious, patronising your audience.
I’ll confess a perverse love of really dreadful dialogue tags, or ‘Swifties’ as they’re sometimes known. Part of me wishes we could get away with lines like ‘he prompted freezingly’ – but it’s instructive to look back at authors we normally think of as writing fruity, baroque prose, like Saki, and realise that even they generally stick to ‘she said’, ‘said Clovis’, and the texture comes from what happens in-between the speech marks – just as it should.
The good news is, the fix for this is simple: change dialogue tags to ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, or replace them with action beats. Have the character pick his nose or sip her pinot noir or pound the escritoire, alerting us to the speaker’s identity while hinting at their emotional state (like anything, this can be overdone and become a stylistic tick, so easy tiger). Often – especially in two person conversations – you’ll find you can delete the dialogue attribution altogether and indicate a change of speaker with a paragraph break. The occasional beat – ‘McGill pressed his arse cheeks to the cold pane and farted’ – helps remind us who is talking while positioning them in the room.
Actually, you know what? That’s a little writing task for you. Write a 200 word scene that includes dialogue between two people, and the sentence ‘McGill pressed his arse cheeks to the cold pane and farted’ somewhere. Your choice genre, tone, etc. I’ll post the best ones on the blog, along with my comments. Get ’em in by next Thursday. Would love to see what you come up with!