Thursday, August 02, 2007

Having our say... and eating it, too

Over at Flogging the Quill, writer and editor Ray Rhamey has some things to say about the use of "said" in dialogue:

There are so many "rules" about writing dialogue tags. One you hear most often is to use "said" instead of more colorful verbs. The theory is that the narrative should give the reader an idea of the nature of the speech, of how it's delivered, and that "said" becomes "invisible" and thus lets the dialogue and action do their thing.

In general, I agree with this, although there are times a verb other than said can be better. For me, "said" does tend to disappear. Especially in my own writing, where I hardly ever use dialogue tags.

In my workshop at the Writer's Weekend conference this year, a participant who is also an editor volunteered that she felt that the dialogue tag "said" was, in fact, far from the "invisible" dialogue tag device that many say it is.

I strip "said" from my own dialogue whenever possible. But the "saidless" passage Ray presents as an example of how that tag and all others can be avoided entirely made me itch.

The problem is that I'm a fast reader and highly distractible. I frequently skim and skip, even in the middle of a good book. When the writing approaches excellence--and I'm not talking about story tension, but the actual writing--I'll slow down to savor it. But most of the time, if dialogue tags aren't spread around a little, I'm liable to miss something and become confused about who's speaking. Since I don't believe I'm the only reader who does that, I don't like hearing writers advising other writers to strip tags until it hurts.

But I think most writers probably err in the other direction. One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Cruisie, uses "said" way too often. Here's an example from Bet Me:

"Cal?" David said.

"Cal?" Cynthie said.

"I love this," Tony said.

"What?" Roger said.

Cal sighed.

At this point I was sighing right along with Cal. This ought to have been a cute exchange, but it was just plain annoying.

Surely there's a happy medium. I'm still trying to find that in my own writing.

Each of us has her own tolerance level for "said" and other dialogue tags. We need to figure out where we as individuals draw those lines, because when we do, we'll know we're writing in our own voices and not trying to copy someone else's.

1 comment:

K J Gillenwater said...

I sort of disagree with your 'Bet Me' example. She wanted the exchange to be quick, and there were more than 2 people talking. To make it clear, she either had to do all the 'said' tags or put in some action to designate who was saying what. And putting in action instead of the 'said' tags would slow the pace down.

To me, 'said' is mostly invisible. Unless it is overused in a dialogue between two people. For example, using 'said' every time they speak in a long exchange. But there needs to be some indicator of who is talking, or I will get lost. If it isn't obvious from what is being said, then I think it is necessary to use a 'he said' or 'she said' every now and then.

I hate long stretches of dialogue without ANY said tags. Nothing more irritating. Because I suddenly am not grounded in the conversation anymore. It's like two bodiless voices. I have no visual.

However, nothing is more annoying than writers doing this:

"I'm tired," he sighed.
"Come on, let's go shopping," she cajoled.
"I hate the mall," he yelled.
"But I need a new pair of shoes," she whined.
"What, fifty pairs aren't enough?" he laughed.