Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, I

I'm typing this out just before I head off to the Far East (which, from where I sit, really ought to be called the Far West, but I guess Greenwich is still the center of the world) for a week of work.

I will keep dropping the occasional post, but I'm afraid that this will be a series of pedantic notes I've been working on about dialogue tags and dialogue mechanics. And who asked me? No one, really. It's more of a manifesto explaining why I handle dialogue the way I do. To whom am I explaining it? Myself, mostly, I'd guess.

Some of you may wish to tune out for a while. If you stick around, please keep in mind that these are just my rules for me, and don't get offended by my polemical tone. And let me make it clear: I have cheerfully read any number of books that violate the precepts I lay out here. A strong story and an otherwise-powerful style can carry me straight past dialogue tags I'd never consider using myself. (But, on other occasions, I stub my toe on dialogue tags in things I read.)

Feel free to post telling me how wrong I am on this topic. Many writers I know have already informed me how wrong I am about all this...

Legend has it that long ago, when pulp magazines still roamed the earth, writers could order—from small ads stashed in back, next to offers for sea-monkeys and X-ray glasses—little books that offered lists of alternatives to the boring verb “said.” Reading most stories written in those days, it is easy to believe that most writers had a “Said Book,” as they were known, beside their typewriters. Why “say” a word when your character could “hiss,” “sneer,” “ejaculate,” or “taunt” it instead?

Oddly enough, the decades when “Said-Bookism” was in its ascendancy were also the decades when Hemingway’s stripped-down dialogue style gained critical approval, and the aesthetics of writing shifted. Even Fitzgerald, not that long before, could write in Gatsby, “argued Lucille skeptically;” but as obscure verbs and hand-waving adverbs came to the fore in the pulps of the 1940s, Wolcott Gibbs at the New Yorker sent round a memo that read, “Word ‘said’ is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting ‘grunted,’ ‘snorted,’ etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.”

Indeed. And, for me, at least, most—not quite all—of the verbs that can stand in for ‘said,’ not only offend, they also sensibly diminish my pleasure in reading by drawing my attention to the author’s involvement in the mechanics of dialogue.

Now, in narrative summary, I don't mind reading that a speaker snarled at his audience. It's a nice, descriptive word. But in "You'd better stop messing with my dialogue tags," Bob snarled I find myself focused on the word snarled rather than what Bob said. I turn over in my head why the writer picked that word. I try to snarl the dialogue under my breath. I search my memory for words that might stand in for snarled. I wonder how the dialogue could be written to sound snarlier without the tag. If I were given a pop quiz--What was that last sentence about?--I'd say, "Snarling!"

‘Said,’ it is often asserted, is an invisible word, much like the articles ‘a’ and ‘the.’ Do readers ever notice that a writer uses ‘the’ too often? The truly pure in heart—including Gibbs, one would assume—can go forever without a speech verb other than ‘said.’ You can read reams of minimalist fiction, such as Raymond Carver, without encountering a speech verb apart from ‘said.’ But the same goes for Elmore Leonard, whom many might label as neo-pulp. I don’t recall anyone ever describing the dialogue of either writer as monotonous, despite the endless repetition of that verb; instead, both are considered to be masters of dialogue.

Clearly a writer can get by with no more than "said", or can inhabit the other extreme (called "Elegant Variation" by its acolytes), and never use the same dialogue verb twice. There are an infinity of places one can draw the line between these two positions. As I'll explain, I draw mine closer to the said-only school, but use a few other verbs as well.


Charles Lambert said...

I use 'said' pretty much exclusively, and my editor wasn't happy with it. We had the invisible/repetitive discussion and I ended up by taking it out when it wasn't necessary, i.e. when it was absolutely clear who was speaking and replacing it with 'asked' every so often if that's what the character was doing. Since I finished editing Little Monsters (now available for pre-order on by the way!), I've found myself thinking more about my use of 'said', and it's becoming natural for me to leave it out as often as I usefully can. Whatever, I certainly wouldn't adopt anything more extravagant than 'asked'. It is fascinating, though, to see how much work speech verbs and their accompanying adverbs were once expected to do. Your fabulous Fitzgerald example is par for the course until a few decades ago.

MNW reject said...

very interesting stuff David.

I recall once getting annoyed with some early Evelyn Waugh books, because he takes the liberty of completely ommitting 'he said' or what have you, assuming you will be able to follow who is saying what without any tag at all. But this just caused me confusion and was really annoying.

But the whole topic is really fascinating. I often feel that when I write there is not enough dialogue in my writing, and that this is somehow bad.

And I think if you can master the technique of just letting your characters talk and tell the story, then this often amounts to good writing.

As well as somehow obliviating the author to the background, there's a certain amount of freedom in dialogue, and I think as a reader it's easy and quick to read.

One of my favourite books is Fathers and Sons and Turgenev uses dialogue to make the book bounce along; so much so that it's often likened to a play.

Anyway I look forward to future posts on the topic

David Isaak said...

Hi Charles,

Well, that's an argument one doesn't expect to have with an editor in modern times. I thought the "said-only" crowd was reasonably well-established as a legitimate option, and one the writer could settle on without fear of questions. But I guess that isn't true (he observed glumly).

And I'll preorder "Little Monsters." Something to look forward to in the New Year.

David Isaak said...

Hey, MNWR--

I'm not sure that a lack of dialogue is "bad", but it's true that dialogue looks less formidable on the page than big blocks of narrative. I find I can adjust to just about any storytelling strategy, and certainly some celebrated contemporary writers--Ian McEwan comes to mind--have long stretches where it seems there's no whitespace on the page.

But you're right--letting things show themselves through dialogue can be fun for both reader and writer. And fun's why we're here,right?

Charles Lambert said...

Thanks for the pre-order, David. I'll reciprocate!

Jake said...

I've cautiously observed, in my own work, that alot of the impression of repetitiveness from "said" can come from repetitive sentence structures. Although this is more a half-formed observation than anything else; the great thing about style problems is that they can stare you in the face for eons before you see them.