Tuesday, August 26, 2014

He said/she said

Many new authors are fond of substituting more lively words for that simple, all-purpose word said when they attribute dialogue. Popular examples include laughed, chuckled, growled, gasped, moaned, hissed, and spat, all of which are impossible to do while you’re trying to say something intelligible. I especially like the word gushed: “She has made me the happiest man in the world,” he gushed. When a character does that, I think, Who is this guy, Old Faithful? Somebody who has just barfed on my shoes?

What people actually do is say a sentence, laughing, gasping, growling, etc., either before or after it. You’ll look more professional if you stick with plain words like said, asked, cried, called, whispered, and shouted and then amplify how the person delivers his dialogue: “Stop, you’re killing me!” Tom said, laughing so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks. Or you could try it this way: “Stop, you’re killing me!” Tom said. He laughed so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks. If you’re writing in the first person, you could also say: “He won’t be coming back,” I told him (or “he/she told him,” if you’re writing in the third person).

Wanting to use more descriptive verbs when you’re attributing dialogue is tempting, I know, but simple words like said are functional. They’re almost invisible because they’re used so frequently. The reader flies past them, so the reading experience is not disrupted. Unusual words are intrusive, making the reader aware of the author.

Another danger of finding alternatives for said is the tendency to use transitive verbs improperly. For example, you may write, “Blah, blah, blah,” Julia interrupted. Interrupt may be used as both a transitive and an intransitive verb, but it’s transitive when its used to mean “to break in with questions or remarks while another is speaking.” Therefore, the transitive verb interrupted must have an object: Julia has to interrupt someone. So you have to write, “Julia interrupted her,” or something similar. A better solution, however, is to stick with said, using the abrupt end of the other character’s speech (shown via the em dash) to communicate the interruption. Example:

Julia whirled on him and said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you—”
“Damn right you know better,” Mark said, “so let’s just drop the subject.”

A better way to play the dialogue attribution game is simply refraining from using them. When only two people are talking, readers have no trouble determining who’s speaking if you start a new paragraph at every speaker change. To see samples of how few saids you can get away with, read a novel or two by Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker.

I'll bet you a million bucks that neither one of them ever used the word gushed.

Paul Thayer