Sing, my lovelies, sing..

Returning to my Common Advice for Writers series and I find I am running out. O.O

Which either means I have been writing way more than I thought or the advice really is that limited. A half dozen cure-all plasters for the novice novelist.

Tis time for..

Dialogue tags 🙂

Namely the admonition that there is only one. Said.

We return to Mr Elmore Leonard. I’m growing quite fond of him. And his funny wee rules.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary

Ignoring asserverated, which is just daft( and I haven’t looked it up yet), what’s really being said here, as in all his rules, is that the dialogue tag is taking you out of the world of the story and reminding the reader its all a pretence.

Authorial intrusion – ie the author sticking his nose in – is something that’s gaining ground in advice circles. In the anti- circle is the very shrewd observation that it’s all words on a page, put there by the author; its how the story is told, the fictional dream woven. Remove them and you’re left with some potentially quite nice white pages and a demand for a refund.

In the pro-circle, a lot of sheep..

In fairness, authorial intrusion shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Not even here. There are certain dialogue tags which run down my nerves like nails on a blackboard.

I wrote a little rhyme mocking this tradition once,

they say, say said,

don’t say grumble or growl, or hiss or howl.

Don’t titter or tut or rejoin and abut

Silly rhymes work best when filled with silly words. Do people in the everyday do much hissing or howling? Yet I bet if you could go a google on a random selection of books you’d find an everyday number of them.

I guess all writers have their own little mantras. Leonards was ‘remove all possible trace of the author from the work’.  Mine is know the effect. Words carry layers of meaning, as I have said oh so many times (sorry), and they remain imprinted with all previous incarnations the reader has come up against – which is unlikely to vary that much in content, though can considerably in preference.

It means that each time you use hiss or howl you are imparting not only the basic meaning of the word but the associated meanings, constructed from life, meanings that will filter through to how we read your character and how we read your book, whether in fact we choose to read your book.  A man who howls is a man who talks like a wolf, a comical image. A fearsome image.. A romantically trite image.

Try this one. ‘she trilled’. On that alone can you construct an image of the character? Is it a svelte doe eyed femme fatale? Or a dumpy, twin-setted interfering old biddy?

There is a lot to be said for choosing more neutral words but I wouldn’t term it as authorial intrusion, rather cultural intrusion. And as much as you can over-salt so can you under-salt. I’m still a fan of putting personality on the page. I’ve yet to need a character who trills, but I like knowing that one simple word can so easily shape a character in my readers minds; without me having to tell them a thing, I can show them who she (or even he) might be.

I would also have to very firmly disagree that a line of dialogue belongs to the character. It doesn’t. It belongs to the narrator. Whoever that might be. So the dialogue tag doesn’t just shape the speaker, but the listener, the one who hears and relays it to us. Their prejudices, fears, desires yet again revealed without a dot of telling slowing down the pace or pulling us out of the world.

My own preference is to get shot of dialogue tags unless absolutely necessary. I almost always tag with action, unless I want to highlight the manner in which it was said, which usually means that it runs contrary to what the reader would expect. Either the dialogue itself suggests something different.. ‘I love you’, she hissed. ‘ Or the reader has been set up to expect certain qualities from the character, ‘I’ve been waiting for you’, tutted the Grim Reaper.

But I wouldn’t prescribe it. Mostly because I doubt anyone would listen even if I howled it from the top of the London Eye.



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