This post brought to you by Fingernails on the Editor’s Chalkboard.
This morning, on one of the writer’s groups I follow on Facebook, this gem was posted.
But for the love of all that is good, and for the sake of Terry Pratchett’s memory… don’t follow the advice given therein.
Nothing screams “I’m a newbie writer” louder than a bunch of “said” alternatives attributing dialogue. Go open any mainstream book you want, read it, and count how many “said alternatives” the writer used.
I guarantee your count will be low.
First – alternatives to the word “said” read as rubbery, unrealistic and frankly – dumb. Let me give you an example…
“Where are we going?” Sarah asked.
“Anywhere but here,” Shanan laughed.
“But I like it here,” Sarah opined.
“There are too many people,” Shanan added, “and people make me nervous.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” Sarah reassured.
That hurt. Sarah, I’m sorry I used you as my poor example. It pains me to torture your voice. Now that I’ve recovered my spinal control after much cringing, let’s look at each line.
Sarah asked. This one isn’t bad. You do ask a question, rather than “saying” a question.
Shanan laughed. You do not laugh words. Ever. You can add a laugh after you speak. You can incapacitate your ability to speak because you are laughing. You can laugh and then speak. But you cannot laugh words. Try it. (If you do try it, please video yourself, post it on YouTube and tag me. I need some entertainment).
Sarah opined. This one just makes me want to bitch-slap someone. How snooty can you sound? Besides, it doesn’t give any meaningful, additional voice to the character. “But I like it here” is already an opinion. Telling us it’s her opinion is like writing the word “opinion” on a yard stick and then beating us with it.
Shanan added. Added to what? It’s not an addition to Sarah’s opinion. It isn’t a continuation of Shanan’s previous statement. It’s not an addition to the number 5. It’s not that new addition to the house that will serve as my writer’s cave. It adds nothing to the dialogue.
Sarah reassured. This is a tragic missed opportunity, and a huge affront to the other character in the passage. First off – is Shanan really reassured? We don’t know. In fact, there’s no way to tell POV at all from the dialogue, so we have no idea of anyone’s internal reaction. Second – how does this character attempt to reassure her friend? Is she more of a “prove it to you” person? Or is she the type who will attempt to talk it out? Will she cite past examples? What is her motive for keeping her friend where she clearly doesn’t want to be?
The word “said” rolls by us on the page much like the white line of the freeway slips silent by as we drive. We know it’s there. We understand its purpose. But our attention is focused elsewhere. When we drive, we see the other cars and the exit signs. When we read dialogue, we notice the characters, their motives, their motivations and their voice.
Those “said” alternatives are like erecting concrete barriers instead of painting white lines. They say, “LOOK AT ME! I’M WHAT’S IMPORTANT!”
Instead of using “said” alternatives in your dialogue, use strong voice, character movement and internal responses (i.e., body language) when you need to express how a character is feeling about the words being spoken.
But please, please, start with strong dialogue!
I’m going to give you two exercises…
First, pick a movie. I don’t care what it is as long as you haven’t seen it a bajillion times. Put on headphones. Play the movie with your eyes shut and just listen to the dialogue. You’ll know who is speaking because you’ll hear different voices… but listen beyond vocal tone and inflection. Pay attention to language use, cadence and tone. Picture the characters’ actions and body language based on the words they are saying. Then, go write a dialogue scene based on your movie scene. Post it here… let us see what you wrote!
Alternately, take my horrible example above and revise it in the comments. Bring it to life. Give the characters their own voices. You can add to what they say, but don’t add too many lines. Keep it short, but make it pop!
How do you feel about these “said” alternatives? How do you deal with dialogue? Let me know!