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He Said, She Said (or was that he interjected, she exclaimed?)

Posted by Dave on March 7, 2010

Well, I mentioned that I was letting Jaben’s Rift sit for two or three weeks before editing it.  Several sources recommend this, not just for a first book, but for any manuscript.  The reason is so that when the author begins the revision process, he or she can see the book through relatively fresh eyes.  What no one seemed to mention was how difficult it would be to just let it lie in the virtual drawer without looking at it.

Although I’m working on another book, I find myself thinking about different passages in the first one, things I need to change, or portions I just want to go back and re-read to see if I still think they work.  The temptation to jump back in is hard to resist.  But, no, I must be strong.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the details are starting to fade.  Oh, I still remember all of the scenes, but at least I don’t remember every comma and italicized word.

Once it’s time to pull it back out and begin the revision and editing process, the first thing I plan to go over is my dialogue.  In particular, the use of the word “said” vs. other alternatives.  Getting ready for this has been a little confusing.  Basically, there are two main schools of thought on this issue:

School A says: 
Avoid overuse of the word “said.”  Vary the text up using other dialogue tags (murmured, cried, shouted, etc…).
There was a thread in one of the writing groups I belong to about this.  One guy said a fellow writer had sent him a list of over two hundred possible substitutions for “said.”  Talk about your variety!

On the other hand, School B says: 
Only use “said” if you must use a dialogue tag at all.  “Said” is an invisible word.  Using other descriptive dialogue tags will interrupt the flow and take the reader out of the story.
This viewpoint prefers the use of action to enhance the dialogue, resorting to “said” (and pretty much nothing but “said”) only when necessary.

So, which is right?  Which one will help me create the most amazing manuscript possible?  As Vinnie Barbarino once said, “I’m sooo confu-u-sed!”

So, hoping to bring a little clarity to the subject, I thought I’d check out some successful writers to see how they handled extended passages of dialogue.  Wanna know what I found?  (Are you sure?)  Okay, here goes.  I won’t mention the novels or authors, but my three examples are very well known in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  I’m not going to write down all of the dialogue, but I will show what the tags were for each piece (said, shouted, no tag, etc…).  Where there aren’t any tags, the author either used action to convey the emotion, or nothing at all.  So here we go…

Example #1:  Two books.  Nebula Award, Hugo Award, nominated for Locus Award

Said – Asked – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – Asked – No tag – Asked – No tag – No tag – Said – Said – No tag  – No tag   – No tag

Okay, that one looks like it’s solidly in School B.  Moving on…

Example #2:  Series has seven novels.  Hugo Award (this author is a giant in sci-fi)

Snapped – No tag – Said quietly – Squeaked – Raced on – Said doggedly – Said curtly – No tag – No tag – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Mumbled hopelessly – Said coldly – No tag – Said slowly and suspiciously – No tag – No tag

Okay, wait a second.  A few other tags slipping in here.  Squeaked?  Mumbled?  And adverbs?  The dreaded –ly modifiers?  (But that’s a topic for another day.).  Okay, okay, let’s try one more.

Example #3:  Well over a dozen novels and novellas in the series.  One Hugo Award, One Nebula Award, and four additional nominations for the Hugo Award. 

This should be a good example, right?  Let’s see…

Suggested – Rejoined – Countered – Said – No tag – Remarked casually – Replied dryly – Said – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Answered sharply – No tag – Demanded – No tag – No tag – Reminded – Assented – Said – Snorted derisively – No tag – No tag

Okay.  Wait.  What?  Where was I?  Oh yes, now I remember.  I’m sooo confu-u-sed!

So, not only does it look like we have divisions between successful authors, but even the people who hand out the awards go both ways.  What’s a writer to do?

Bottom line, you have to do whatever gets the emotion across the most effectively, yet maintains the flow of the story so that your reader doesn’t remember they’re actually reading a book.  Let’s try an example…

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he said angrily. 
Okay, he’s angry.  We know that because of the clunky use of the word “angrily.”  But it doesn’t have a lot of impact, does it?  And that whole “he said angrily” part kind of interrupts the flow.

We could try a different tag.  Shorten it up a bit.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he snarled.   
Better.  Dropping the adverb improves the flow,  but the reader has to hesitate for an instant to define the word “snarled” in his or her head. Using tags like this also indicates the emotion. For example, if I had said,
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” he giggled.
It’s a completely different feel. But again, there is the minute instant in the reader’s mind where they have to make that connection.
A lot of readers won’t notice it. Some will, and if done too often, will get distracted and maybe even stop reading the story.

How about an exclamation mark instead?

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it!”
Well, the emotion still comes through because of the exclamation mark, but we’re not quite sure what the emotion is unless we showed earlier that he’s angry.  One thing to point out here.  Be careful with exclamation marks.  Too many and you will “wear out” your reader.  On this point I agree with what others have said, less is more when using exclamation marks.  Using them only sparingly is much more effective than using them everywhere.

Another possibility is using action to get your point across.

He slammed his fist on the tabletop and glared at her.  “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” 
Here, even without the exclamation mark and dialogue tag, we get a clear sense that he is angry because we can “see” that he’s upset. You’ll sometimes hear people say “show, don’t tell.” That’s what we did here. The action we put into the scene shows the character’s emotion instead of using something like “angrily” to tell the reader how the character feels. 
Using action to get your emotion across also allows the reader to experience more.  In their mind, they hear the fist slamming down, they see the intense glare from the man.  Maybe they imagine the table jumping just a bit from the impact. But whichever action you use (slamming the fist, throwing something against the wall), it gives the story a little more depth.
So, here’s what I’ve decided. I’ll go through, trying to use tags as little as possible, using action or nothing at all when I can. I will not, however, restrict myself to the word “said.” If another tag seems to be to be the best way to get my point across, I’ll use it. Whatever is the least distracting, but still gets the emotion across.
(Of course, if I have someone ready to publish it if I make a few changes, I’ll certainly give it some serious thought.)

Update:
Well, I’m almost to 12,800 words now. I fell off the pace a little through the week. Fortunately, I was able to make up lost ground over the weekend.

I still need to do better. I could give all kinds of excuses as to why I didn’t hit my mark each day, but they would be just that…excuses. I’m learning that, while I enjoy writing, to actually be a writer is going to involve self discipline. Deadlines, quotas, and all that rot, don’t you know.  But then again, almost any job is going to involve deadlines and production quotas. Might as well try to make it in one that I would actually enjoy what I do. Right?

Have a good one,
Dave

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