Saturday, February 02, 2008

He said, she said

There’s an excellent post up at Redlines and Deadlines about exactly the topic I wanted to talk about today.

Not that I want to turn my blog into a daily writing exercise, but on this timely topic, Dialogue Tags, I have another small rant.

No, it’s not about the authors I edit. It’s about an assignment my daughter was given in English class. Her teacher asked the class to come with as many synonyms for ‘said’ as they could.

While this might be a nice exercise in learning how to use a Thesaurus, as a writer and editor I had to object. She’s teaching them to do something that, as a writer, I’ve had to train myself NOT to do. Once again I say, it’s a wonder anyone learns to write at all when the skills you’re taught in school are sometimes exactly what you have to unlearn in order to become fiction author.

I cringed when my daughter explained her assignment and I told her, while it’s great to know synonyms for any word, SAID should not be considered a boring, mundane or useless word. I told her, when used properly, SAID is invisible. It fades into the background where it belongs and lets your dialogue show unencumbered.

You don’t need to say: “I’m not lying!” she insisted.

Or worse, “I’m telling the truth!” she proclaimed vehemently.

“I can’t stand all this arguing,” he whined.

“Neither can I,” she retorted.

SAID works, it fits and it’s fewer letters to type. Use it! But not after every single piece of dialogue. Then it gets repetitive, and repeats are another thing Ursula has a fit over, but that’s another topic.

Anyway, as the discussion continued, we went through a list of synonyms for SAID, and I opined petulantly on the merits of words like ‘hissed’ or ‘spat’ or ‘whispered.’ Occasional use is fine, but don’t make a habit of having your characters do anything with dialogue other than say it. It sparked a big debate with my husband whether or not you can ‘laugh’ dialogue. I say no, you really shouldn’t, and he said yes.

Finally, my daughter asked, “Can you quack dialogue?”

I said no, unless you’re a duck. And DH came up with what I believe is the perfect use of ‘quacked’ as a tag.

“AFFFFLAAAACK!” he quacked.

Can’t argue with that.

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