Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On what not to say

Or, That's What She Proclaimed
Or, That's Easy for You to Announce

Okay, so I know I haven't been too terribly shy in voicing my opinions on some of my pet peeves. (It helps, in all of the cases, that I'm unarguably right.) But I'm gonna have to out with another one, and this one's for any of my reader who has fantasies of and/or aspirations to a career in fiction.

I'm in the process of reading a book that I won't name right now, as I'm saving it for a brutal critique - er, a firm but gentle review - in a future post. And I've been trying to read it objectively. But one thing that keeps bugging the crap out of me - and pulling me entirely out of the story over and over again - is the fact that none of the characters ever says anything.

Which isn't to say there isn't dialogue. There's plenty. Characters lie, they insist, they urge, they announce, and prompt, and admit, and mumble, and that's just in the first chapter. But they don't say anything. The S section of the author's thesaurus must be dog-eared, pencil-marked, highlighted, and crinkled all to hell, because the one word she apparently can't bring herself to use is "said." And even when she does, it's always done gruffly, gently, formally, harshly, tenderly, or slowly.

Just say "said" already.

Seriously. Just go ahead and write "said." You know it's already there in your head; you've spent the past seven or eight minutes trying to come up with a word to say other than "said." Stop. Writing isn't supposed to be that hard, and your writing is going to be a hell of a lot better if you relax a little, let it flow, and stop anguishing over whether your character just murmured or muttered.

We have been subject to bad, bad advice in our creative writing classes. To make our writing more colorful, we're supposed to use more vividly descriptive words - we don't need to walk when we can stomp or stride or lope - and plenty of adjectives and adverbs. Especially adverbs. Especially adverbs modifying adjectives modifying nouns. And in some cases, it makes sense; whether a character walks or lumbers or whether the sun is shining dimly or brightly can really set the mood of a scene.

But when it comes to dialogue, you need to come to a full stop and examine your motives before your characters start affirming and opining and pronouncing and asserting and responding and reporting and, Jesus, God, disclosing. Is it really so important that we know she's confessing something rather than just saying it? Or is there any way you could show through context clues - her body language, her facial expression, maybe someone else's reaction to what she says and how she says it - that whatever she's saying is tearing her up just a bit? Is there any chance at all that you're uncertain about your own writing talents and feel the need to compensate with a thesaurusful of fancy words so people won't think you're dumb?

Put the Hummer in the garage, Ms. McCompensatey. Swallow your pride and work to improve your writing instead of your vocabulary. Work to thoroughly and vividly develop your characters, establish setting and context, and write realistic dialogue. Hell, maybe take a leap and leave out dialogue tags entirely (ooooh...). Be a better writer and your readers will be so engaged in what your characters are saying that they won't even care if maybe one of them should have just "quipped" instead. And if, after due consideration, you decide that maybe a character did actually sigh or laugh or cough a line of dialogue, it'll make your writing more colorful rather than more cumbersome. Remember that writing is about the story, not the words, and it's hard to get through a story if the writer keeps pimp-slapping you with a thesaurus.

Charles Dickens's characters say things. Elmore Leonard's characters say things. Alexandre Dumas's characters say things in French. In 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Harry Potter, the characters all say things. If "said" was good enough for them, it takes some balls to think it's not good enough for you, Steph - er, writer who shall remain nameless.

No comments: