Tuesday, December 14, 2010


So I noticed something on my latest WiP (working titles A Madman's Mercy or Wrecking Ball): I'm most of the way through Act I and there's not a single bit of dialogue attribution. No 'he said' or 'she said', let alone 'whispered', 'shouted', 'muttered', 'growled' or any of the rest of it. It was an odd thing to notice.

This wasn't a conscious decision. I mean, I have definitely been moving away from the attributive excesses of my early work. In its recent rewrite, my first novel lost over eight thousand words of useless attributions alone. In the beginning, I was absolutely said-happy!

I certainly reined that impulse in early on, and apparently the process continues. These days I'm favoring what I call stage-business attribution:

"The fat man promised us Christmas off." Jackson's fingers brushed the butt of his gun. "We always get Christmas off."
"You want to be the one to tell him?"
"Shit, I look like I got a death wish?"

It's a way of sneaking in character, mood, tension, layers of extra meaning, whatever the scene needs right then, and I don't have to bother with said.

Try these:

"The fat man promised us Christmas off," Jackson said. "We always get Christmas off."
"You want to be the one to tell him?"
"Shit, I look like I got a death wish?"


"The fat man promised us Christmas off," Jackson said. His fingers brushed the butt of his gun. "We always get Christmas off."
"You want to be the one to tell him?"
"Shit, I look like I got a death wish?"

Now, this is all down to individual style, but for me that second one (just using 'said') still delivers the 'punch line' at "death wish", but these could be Wal-Mart employees for all we know. The third does up the tension and the stakes with the gun, but it's just that teensy bit more flabby than the first example.

And I do try to keep my work lean.

Occurs to me now as I type, two of my recent Kindle-reads were No Country for Old Men and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Written forty or fifty years apart, in neither work will you find a single instance of 'he said'. The voices are clear and easy to distinguish, and if I found myself a bit lost for a moment, I usually caught up with a line or two more of dialogue...

Just thought I'd share. :)


Angie said...

I did that for a few years, writing without dialogue tags. [nod] Back when I was still paying attention to fads re: dialogue construction, there was a period (early- to mid-nineties, somewhere in there IIRC) when the accepted wisdom was that dialogue tags were for losers. Before that it'd been anything but "said" as a dialogue tag, but that eventually fell away and we were to offer all our dialogue naked. :P So I wrote without them for a however many years, until the fad changed again and we were back to using "said," because it's an invisible word, you see.

That's the point where I got off the merry-go-round. I'd torch the thing if I could, because it's ridiculous. It's not about what's "best," it's about what's popular, what's trendy, and what the folks who like to impress others by making hip pronouncements think they can get away with in their constant mission to make the little people dance for them.

Going without dialogue tags, as in your first example up there, can be very effective. [nod] It depends what you're trying to accomplish, your style, the tone of the piece, etc. I usually use a blend of techniques now, depending on what I'm writing and how I want it to come across to the reader.

In the case of Jackson, who wants Christmas off but isn't willing to say so to the fat man, even with a gun to back him up, I agree that the no-tag example is the most effective. :)


Charles Gramlich said...

I still use 'em, probably more than I need too. I like them at times because they change the rhythm or beat of the story. Often they are not needed. For sure.

Steve Malley said...

For what it's worth, I've also noticed two other things:

My side-project Steampunk novel *likes* 'said'. The rhythms of that dialogue perfectly reflect the beat of that novel.

And a recent reread of Crossroad Blues turned up several breakings of the 'sacred rule'. The cast growls, whispers and shouts as necessary. And on close examination, each of those attributions was the leanest, cleanest way to get the point across...

Just for some reason, that's not how this novel rolls... :)

AvDB said...

My style usually splits the difference. I throw in a good number of dialogue tags, but also use--as you do--the opportunity to sneak in a little action, instead. I tend to look at my pages as big blocks that need breaking up and try to put in a little white space for variation when the writing permits.

And I break the "rule" when I feel I need to. Blanket rules are silly things and I don't usually abide by them.

cs harris said...

I try to remember to go through at the end of the editing process and look for "saids" that can be cut, although some I leave simply because I like the effect on the rhythm.

I also like to stick "bits of business" in dialogue for another reason besides simply getting rid of a "said": they're a way to show a passage of time between one utterance and the next, w is often useful if the train of thought of the second sentence doesn't exactly follow directly on the first. They can also be used to give hints about the speaker's state of mind, mood, or personality.