I recently received a rather unexpected comment on something I had written, and I think I did a good job of responding politely. Like most writers, I greatly look forward to comments, either positive or negative. Naturally, we like the positive nods because it means, usually, we did something well. I pause with usually because there are readers who regularly write “great job” no matter how great or poor your “job” might have been.
Some of us actually prefer negative comments because there is always the potential for someone to accurately point out something that’s inaccurate. No matter how carefully we revise, there are always spelling, punctuation, or other errors we will miss. Just today I was lucky enough to have a friend find that I had written “were” when it should have been “where,” or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, my thanks to Sverrir.
Another reason to enjoy negative comments is so we can learn something we previously had not known. For example, last week I read a short story in which the writer used “mom” and “dad” several times, but too often he capitalized them incorrectly. I left a comment explaining the rules for capitalizing titles such as mom, dad, grandmother, uncle, etc. I have not yet returned to his blog to see if my comment was appreciated. Probably not well, but that’s not what I’m here to write about.
A few weeks ago I wrote a flash fiction piece for which I found a critical remark from a reader who did not like my attributions. I only used “he said” and “she said” instead of things like “he exclaimed” or “she cried” etc. Perhaps you can tell, but this inspired another “Writing 2.0” blog post, of which you are now in the middle.
You might not know that dialogue is my strongest writing skill, and part of dialogue is attribution, of course. I go along with advice from Ernest Hemingway, whom I paraphrase:
If your dialogue is written well, you don’t need anything more than “he said” or “she said.”
Let’s think about that.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she asked.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.
Putting aside the fact that I hear this on a daily basis, let’s look at the difference between the two sentences. One used “asked” and one used “said.” Only 99% of you will tell me that “asked” is correct, to which I respond, “Why?” I know it’s a question, yeah, because of that curly thing. I do not need the attribution of “asked” to know it’s a question. Whether the spoken words are interrogative or declarative, she still “said” something. If you asked, you spoke. And if you spoke, you said. Nobody is going to read “What the hell is wrong with you?” and not know it was a question when it is NOT followed by “she asked.” And if you don’t know it’s a question, then you don’t know how to read.
Hopefully, you never suffered through any of the Twilight books. While reading the first two – because my kid asked (not said) me too – I had a list of some horrible attributions. Can’t find the list, so I’ll recreate them as best I can.
“I don’t really care,” she said staring out the window abstractedly.
This uses “said,” but it adds the stupid adverb “abstractedly.” It could be the writer really meant “distractedly,” but this is what was printed.
This next line was written as an answer to a question:
“No,” he disagreed.
Really? Are readers unaware that “no” signifies disagreement?
I think you get the idea. I’m going to put down a few lines of dialogue, each with two choices for attribution. You decide which works better, and feel free to explain your choices.
“Holy batshit!” he exclaimed / she said / (or nothing).
“Get away from my car!” she shouted / she said / (or nothing).
“Shh. They’ll hear us,” she whispered / he said / (or nothing).
“Please! No! Wait!” he cried / he said / (or nothing).
Most writers will go with the first choices of exclaimed, shouted, whispered, and cried because they are the easiest choices. Really, you can’t lose because nobody will complain. However, I will submit that the context is enough so that we only need said. I will go even further as to say my preference would be nothing.
Let me be clear about something that was lost in translation until I was reminded by List of X. I am not saying NEVER use words like shouted, cried, and whispered. I AM saying that if you spend time using a thesaurus to find unique attributions because you think it makes you a better writer - don't. It doesn't make you a better writer. Use those other words sparingly, but stick mainly with "said" or "asked."
Your job as a writer is not to teach me new vocabulary. Your job as a writer is to teach me a new story.
Of course we would need more narrative around the quotes, but I would wager that there would be enough context included that we wouldn’t need anything more than just the dialogue. In context, there likely would be no mistaking which character would be exclaiming, shouting, whispering, or crying. For example:
Luke watched in amazement as Tex rode the bull well beyond nine seconds. “Holy batshit!”
Considering that Tex is riding the bull, it is not very likely he would also yell “Holy batshit!” It is more likely that Luke would have said this as Tex is probably unable to speak.
Marie was walking through the parking lot when she saw two boys crouched next to one of her tires. “Get away from my car!”
Thanks to the set up, we know there’s only one possible person who could say this.
“I think the kids are awake,” David said to his wife. “Shh! They’ll hear us.”
It is safe to assume his wife had answered him, and it is safe to assume she whispered.
The gunman raised his pistol, taking aim at Joseph’s forehead. “Please! No! Wait!”
Anyone want to guess who would have said this line?
Another instance in which poorly written dialogue drives me up a wall is when to use names in direct address. For example:
“Diane, can you answer the phone?”
“Can you answer the phone?”
The obvious difference here is the use of a name in direct address, when you directly speak to a specific person. Most writers use this unnecessarily and incorrectly. More often than not, written dialogue involves only two people at a time. If that is the case, why use the other person’s name if there are only two people? If a married couple named Diane and Jack are talking to each other, they know only the two of them are present. They can’t possibly accidentally talk to someone else. If Jack only says, “Can you answer the phone?” there is no way Diane could ever say, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were talking to me.” So please believe that 9 times out of 10, you won’t need to use the name. But what about the other 1 out of 10?
Let’s put it in context.
Jack was heading for the bathroom when the phone rang. “Can you answer the phone?”
You want to guess who is making this statement? Jack or Diane? Should be easy. That’s 9 out of 10. What about that leftover 1? Let’s give that a shot.
“I don’t either.”
“I don’t either, Jack.”
These two lines seem silly on their own, so I’m going to add context. Then you tell me which one is the better choice.
After ten minutes of nothing but forks stabbing at chicken and vegetables, Jack broke the silence. “I don’t understand why you got fired.”
“I don’t either.”
“I don’t either, Jack.”
In the first one, without the name, we can assume that Diane is unhappy about being fired. As previously stated, we usually don’t use the other person’s name when there are only two people - unless we are angry and feel a need to direct anger towards that person. It brings emphasis and intent. It kind of throws something back at or sort of reduces the other person. That's what happens in the second sentence, the one with "Jack." Using "Jack" tells us that Diane is not only unhappy but she's also unhappy with Jack. Maybe Jack didn't do anything wrong, but maybe Diane is tired of being asked. Maybe Jack is blaming her for getting herself fired. Or maybe you don't know Jack.
Try it out with a friend, or your significant other. Say it to them, or let them say it to you. When you hear your name, you will feel something, and it won’t be a hug. Maybe more like a dart. Or, maybe you already know what I'm talking about because it already happens too often.