Monday, August 27, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, II

(From Cecil Street in beautiful downtown Singapore...)

The quickest way to recognize a newbie fiction writer is to glance at their dialogue and eye it on a strictly mechanical basis. Unlike rules of grammar, which good fiction often breaks to excellent effect, the way dialogue is presented on the page is a highly stylized convention, and one that is supposed to be invisible. Indeed, the common means of presenting dialogue is just one of a few legitimate possibilities. For example, there's the em-dash, preferred by Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country and by James Joyce in Ulysses:

—That’s right, Father Cowley said. The reverend Mr. Love. He’s a minister in the country somewhere.

Or, in more recent times, the nothing-in-particular used by Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian:

Neighbors, said the Reverend, he couldnt stay out of these here hell, hell, hellholes right here in Nagodoches. I said to him, said: You goin to take the son of God in there with ye?

Of course, there are moments when there is nothing like McCarthy to make me appreciate the punctuation conventions of standard fiction; sometimes the ‘said’ of one McCarthy speaker is reported inside the ‘said’ of another, followed by an additional ‘he said’ from the original speaker, until the reader must stop and try to draw a chart of the pronouns. Umm, he who? (This, combined with the lack of apostrophes in contractions, sometimes makes McCarthy’s prose seem just the teensiest bit affected.)

The simplest and least ambiguous way to present dialogue is within quotation marks: “I’m going to climb over, even if you can’t.” (Or, in the UK, ‘I’m going to climb over, even if you can’t.’ Much as I adore our Cousins Across the Water, the weirdness of the way the apostrophes pair up in ‘I’m…can’t.’--which throws a peculiar emphasis on 'I' and 't.'--makes me prefer the more cluttered US usage. I somehow doubt that my opinion is going to change current practices, though.)

The problem, of course, is that dialogue often must be attributed (as in both Joyce and McCarthy above) to avoid confusion. Often the simplest way to do this is to present the dialogue in a paragraph where the speaker is the focus. At random, I have grabbed the fiction nearest to my elbow, a collection of short stories by Andre Dubus III:

Vinnie’s eyes were still wet. He looked like he was about to shout something, but then he looked back down at his feet. “I said somebody knows, that’s all.”

Handling everything with ‘business’ would quickly turn cumbersome. So dialogue tags are needed, and used even by celebrated literary writers like, say, Annie Proulx:

“Job,” Buddy said.

The problem for many writers seems to lie in the convention that the dialogue and the tag are tied together with a comma. There is no difference (except in rhythm and emphasis) between Proulx’s line above and:

Buddy said, “Job.”

In both cases, this is a formulation that runs Buddy Verbed X. Buddy hit John. Buddy threw a tantrum. Buddy swam the English Channel. But is this case—the case where the verb that Buddy engaged in was ‘said’—we offset the words he recited with a comma and a pair of quotation marks.

Note that this is not the only way of handling what Buddy said. In narrative summary, we could write:

Buddy said he was tired and thought he’d just go home and sleep.

The comma-and-quotation structure means that what Buddy said is being cited in literal form:

Buddy said, “I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.”

This seems straightforward. And, it would still make sense if we wrote:

Buddy whispered, “I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.”

Or even:

Buddy proclaimed, “I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.”

Yes, it still makes sense…but, ‘saying’ is neutral. ‘Whispering’ is a literal description. ‘Proclaiming’ moves from description to a judgment on someone’s part—though at least it is still a form of speech.

The biggest problem of all is that, carried away with alternative verbs, the writer soon begins to believe that any verb can be slipped into the syntactical slot reserved for ‘said.’ Consider:

“I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep,” he blushed.

No. No no no no no…Umm, did I mention, "No?" ‘Blushing’ is a reaction of the skin. Though it may be eloquent in its own way, it is not a form of ‘saying.’ When one encounters a problem like this, it is hard to see where the fault originates. Is it that the mechanics of dialogue are so confusing to some writers that they can’t see the difference between the foregoing and the legitimate construction:

“I’m tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep.” He blushed.

which is made up of two independent sentences? Or is it the idea that, once you’ve used the verb ‘said’ in such a way, and then allowed ‘whispered,’ and then ‘proclaimed,’ that whatever verb you like may be attached as a tag? Back in 1962, novelist James Blish (hiding behind his critical William Atheling, Jr. pseudonym) thought it was the latter, and that once technique started down that slippery slope, there was nothing to prevent someone from writing:

“Good morning,” he pole-vaulted.

If ‘said’ covers all cases, then why is anything else ever used? Or, to put it another way, why all the pole-vaulting? There are several reasons, some good and some bad. And I promise to run my mouth on the topic in my next post.


Sam Taylor said...

Ooh. I feel inspired. I should write a story where I can use the "he pole-vaulted" line. :)

Seriously, though, considering the looseness with words and syntax of Joyce, I'm surprised he wasn't leading the vanguard charge to use unexpected/inappropriate verbs.

MNW reject said...

'Good morning' he pole-vaulted is genius I agree.

I have to say I only ever read one Joyce book (portrait of the artist as a young man) and though I appreciate his desire to break the conventionality of speech marks, I found that his em dash didn't really amount to anyhting different: I just found it annoying.

David Isaak said...

Hi, guys--

Joyce certainly was a language bender, but I'm not sure what the whole em-dash obsession was about. It was rather widespread for a while, and you still see the occasional writer using it. No one has ever explained to me how it is supposed to be better than quote marks. Different, yes. But printing in green ink would be different, too.

Jake Jesson said...

I would also love to see the phrase "Good morning, he pole-vaulted" used in a work of fiction somewhere. David, I think it's all up to you.