Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dialoge Tags and Mechanics, III


I believe that the word ‘asked’ is just as invisible as ‘said,’ and prefer it for dialogue tags involving questions. But the minimalists insist you can get by quite nicely without it, and they seem to do so.

Blish even inveighed against ‘asked’ as redundant. After all, if a piece of dialogue ends in question mark, isn’t it obvious that it was asked? My only response is that it sounds wrong to my inner ear: “Excuse me, sir, can I say a question?” We don’t say questions and we don’t ask statements, and I find, “What are you doing?” he said to be a tiny bit jarring. (But I find it wholly transparent alongside, say, he queried or he interrogated.)


In the hands of a comedic writer, the frisson of dissonance between the expected and what is delivered can be amusing. In a sense, this is metafiction, which only acquires its meaning relative to the existing body of fiction. The use of said-substitutes in this fashion is seen most obviously in catchy titles, such as William Noble’s book on writing, “Shut up,” He Explained, or Lynda Obst’s Hollywood primer, “Hello,” He Lied.

Some writers, especially in parody or satire, will use this kind of dissonance in the text (“Go to hell,” he noted). And some comic writers have characters ‘spluttering’ and ‘babbling’ in the verbal equivalent of a Three Stooges skit. But many of our most talented writers of comic fiction—Christopher Moore, for example—stick to ‘said’ almost exclusively, and let the humor of the dialogue itself carry the story.

As with everything else related to comedy, the only test is to see if people laugh…and if they stay involved. Jazzing around with language expectations can be funny, but it can also knock people right out of the story. As a technique, it’s much like Woody Allen addressing the camera in Annie Hall. If it works, fine, but it carries risks.


A good argument can be made for verbs that literally describe how dialogue is voiced. “Whispered,” “shouted,” or even “murmured” might have their place. After all, these are not metaphorical or judgmental in nature: everyone would agree with little dissent whether or not someone had ‘shouted.’

Unlike ‘said’ or ‘asked,’ these verbs do call a certain amount of attention to themselves. But getting around them, when they are important to the story, can be as distracting as including them. ‘He lowered his voice. “Slip me the keys…”’ works well enough, but it’s hard to find a way of saying ‘shouted’ without using the word itself or a synonym. (‘He raised his voice’ doesn’t really imply ‘shouted.’)

If these sorts of verbs were the only ones that appeared in dialogue tags as substitutes for ‘said,’ there wouldn’t be much of a problem. If they draw some attention to themselves, fine—it adds to the emphasis of how the thing is uttered.

Unfortunately, many folks take this as an invitation to be creative, and seize on less obvious terms, such as “grated” or “blared.” This leads on to even more questionable means of vocalization, such as “gritted,” “chimed,” or “twittered.” The proliferation of such verbs becomes so automatic for some writers they are unable to understand that what they propose isn’t even possible:

“You’d better not try that, buddy-boy,” he hissed.

(C’mon, try hissing that, without a sibilant in sight.)

“I don’t care who you are or where you are going!” she snapped.

(I find it hard to snap anything that has more than a few syllables, and it helps if it has some pretty sharp consonants.)

“So, that’s just tough luck for everybody,” he snorted.

(I have trouble making any snort articulate, but even were I more talented in this regard, that is one l-o-o-o-o-ong snort.)

This leads on to other improbabilities, including the very common forms of laughter (or chuckling, or chortling, or giggling).

“Well, we sure can’t figure out what to do!” he laughed.

What would that sound like? Weh-heh-heh-hell, wee-hee-hee shoo-hoo-hoor can’t fig-hih-hig-yoor ou what to doo-hoo-hoo-hoo? If someone is breaking up with laughter during their sentence, so that it comes out in fits and starts and is barely comprehensible, then describe it (if it’s important); but don’t baldly state a transcription of what the person said, and then tell the reader that the person ‘laughed’ it.

The ultimate impossibilities come when we reach verbs that are gestures and have nothing to do with vocalization at all:

“I don’t care what you do,” he shrugged.

“Please don’t,” he winced.

“I’d like that,” he smiled.

Press your lips tight shut, and then go outside and try shrugging or wincing sentences to passersby. Some writers carry this to point of:

“I’m getting panicky,” he agitated.

“What—what are you doing?” he flustered.

Chortling a sentence is almost impossible. Smiling, shrugging, or flustering one is just plain nonsensical.

I use said for statements, asked for questions, and on rare occasions I will use whispered, shouted or yelled, as these are very literal verbs that are not implied by said. (And I admit to a snapped in my forthcoming novel, but I wrung my hands over it, not only when I wrote it, but during the final edit. So shoot me.)


Jeremy James said...

David, you have quite the knack for explaining Craft. I really enjoyed these posts on attribution.

David Isaak said...

Hi Jeremy--

I'm in Indonesia at the moment, so sections of this Blogger page are coming up in Bahasa: "jeremy james berkata..."

This box I'm typing my answer into is labeled "Tinggalkan komentar Anda," which I think means "Type Comments Below." But it could mean, "Enter anything whatsoever in this box and a deman will drag your straight down to Hades." So if you don't hear from me again, that's probably what happened.

As to the posts--thanks. Stick around. There's more (yikes!)

Sam Taylor said...

Hmm. In the first draft, I was very concerned about stickng to "said". In the second draft, I polished the dialogue, and was quite a bit less wound up about it.

I have several yells, shouts, and whispers. But that's because people are fighting or sneaking a lot. At least they're short yells/shouts/whispers.

I know I have a few "told"s, because "he said to her" feels vastly different to "he told her", at least to me. It gives that slightly-deeper shade of the character.

There may be a single "questioned" floating around in the book somewhere. Or I may have edited it out by now. That one, I wrung my hands about.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

I guess my position is that as long as attribution is thought about enough, we've earned it. So if we've wrung our hands we've earned it.

It's sort of a Calivinist position, now that I think about it: Forgiveness of sins is achieved through suffering and hard work. Huh. Who knew?