Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Stick With 'Said," He Admonished Gravely.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
(Elmore Leonard, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing)

This is no bullshit. If you’re looking for ways to be clever and unique try writing better dialog. If the urge is overcoming you to have a character announce, assert, declare, disclose, express, maintain, reply, report, retort, respond, reveal, state, suggest, affirm, allege, divulge, exhort, imply, opine, relate, or remark, just lie down until it passes. All you’re doing is drawing attention from the important points of the story while the reader looks up “asseverate.”

I’m firmly in the “said” camp. Have been for as long as I’ve been a serious writer. (Pause inserted while readers consider whether I qualify as a serious writer….Okay, long enough.) I occasionally hear other writers rationalize that “said” gets boring and some variety is needed. To them I say, “You’re wrong.” “Said” is the invisible word. In the context of a dialog attribution, the eye passes over it like a warm breeze on the beach, disturbing one’s attention not at all.

Granted, there are pitfalls. Even the great Robert B. Parker was not above carrying a good thing too far, as in this excerpt from his otherwise excellent Western, Resolution:

“Why’s it swole?” Virgil said.
“’Cause she’s lame,” Blue Shirt said.
“Wasn’t swole when I sold her,” Pink Shirt said.
Virgil took a long breath through his nose.
“Where’s the horse?” Virgil said.
“Out front,” Blue Shirt said.
“Lemme see her,” Virgil said.

Now he’s violating the rule that prohibits using the same word too often too close together, even when it’s an “invisible” word. He could have saved one “said” by adding Virgil’s second line of dialog to the small bit of stage business that breaks up the dialog. (Editor’s Note: What follows is not in any way an attempt to improve on Robert B. Parker. I will throw down on any man who even implies I think I could improve on Parker. This is attempt to dissuade those who not already in the “said only” school from using it as an example of why other attributive verbs would be better.)

Virgil took a long breath through his nose. “Where’s the horse?”

Now it’s still obvious Virgil is speaking and we saved one example of driving “said” into our brains like a 10p common nail.

Parker does have a challenge here, as there are three people in the conversation. He can’t just leave the attributions out altogether. Well, he could, as each speaker has a distinctive point of view, but Blue Shirt and Pink Shirt aren’t in the book enough for us to have a good idea about them beyond this exchange. (Which is their only appearance.) Anything that causes the reader to have to think about who’s speaking takes them out of the story which is, by definition, a problem.

He could make use of some stage business, which he almost did by having Virgil take a long breath through his nose. One can also rephrase a comment so the speech appears as narrative.

Virgil asked why it was swole.
“’Cause she’s lame,” Blue Shirt said.
Pink Shirt crossed his arms in disgust. “Wasn’t swole when I sold her.”
Virgil took a long breath through his nose. “Where’s the horse?”
“Out front,” Blue Shirt said.
Virgil started walking. “Lemme see her.”

This may or may not be any better, or even as good. It does break up the scenery a little without slowing things down too much.

I’m making such a big deal of this because I agonize over dialog attributions. Breaking up the dialog to show some little action, not going too long in even a two-person conversation without mentioning who is speaking. Whatever I think will work. What troubles me more than anything is leaving the attribution to the end of the sentence so the reader may have to read the line again in the proper character’s voice if she didn’t pick it up on the first pass.

This last bothered me quite a bit on my final draft of the work-in-progress until I lucked into a solution. First, a brief digression. I know quite a few authors who don’t like to read fiction when they’re working on a book. They’re afraid the other author’s voice may creep into their own work. I understand that but disagree. To me, reading other fiction while working on a book is like taking a continuing master class. Not that I want to rip them off (not that I never do, either), but I’m often reminded of things I wanted to make sure are in my book but may have been forgotten as I focused on other details.

What happened here was different: I learned something. I was reading James Ellroy’s White Jazz when the answer to my dialog attribution problems fell into my lap. The particular question I had was how not to slow things down in a multi-character conversation by adding stage business when none would likely take place, yet still make it clear.

A colon.

Long a staple of stage and screenplays, dialog attribution by means of a colon works well in novels, too. Here’s an excerpt from White Jazz, where first-person narrator Dave Klein eavesdrops on a conversation between Touch, Rock, and Glenda from behind a door.

Smells: cotton, stale perfume. Dark going gray—I saw a bed and bookshelves. Voices—hug the door—listen:
Glenda: “Well, there is a precedent.”
Touch: “Not a successful one, sweetie.”
Rockwell: “Marie ‘the Body’ McDonald. A from-nowhere career, then this kidnapping out of nowhere. The papers smelled publicity stunt quicksville. I think—”
Glenda: “It wasn’t realistic, that’s why. Her hair wasn’t even mussed. Remember, Mickey Cohen is bankrolling our movie. He’s hot for me, so the press will think gangland intrigue right off. Howard Hughes used to keep me, so we’ve got him for a supporting play—”
Touch: “’Keep,’ what a euphemism.”
Rock: “What’s a euphemism?”
Touch: “Lucky you’re gorgeous, ’cause you’d never make it on brains.”

Another half a page like that. Granted, Ellroy’s style isn’t for everyone, but look what he accomplishes. Three people more or less talking over each other in a rapid-fire conversation. Three people the narrator can’t see. I’d never try to pull it off for that long, but the scene flies.

So now I have another tool available for judicious use. Like anything else, I have to be careful not to overuse it. Just like “said.”

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