I will begin the second installment in my creative writing advice series by saying that this is, perhaps, the most controversial entry you’ll read. That’s because, the “rules” discussed herein are somewhat counter-intuitive, and I’m not even entirely sure that I’m sold on them both yet myself.
What rules might I be talking about, you’re wondering?
Both relate to dialogue. The first rule is, be careful not to use verbs for speech that aren’t synonyms of “to say.” I’ll jump into some examples soon, so don’t worry if that’s unclear for now. The second rules is to use the word “said” as much as possible.
Now, for some examples of rule number one. All three of the following pieces of dialogue are from Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin, whose review you can read here. In all of these examples, Logan misuses verbs by adding them to dialogue.
‘Any day now, Green,’ Radeth mocked.
Mocking is not a synonym for speaking. It is a behavior done to an indirect object.
‘Do not talk, Thanan,’ Kilian scolded firmly, cutting the boy off. ‘You will listen.’
Scolding is not a form of uttering words. You cannot scold some words at someone.
‘Ten years,’ Grimmach seethed, breaking the silence.
Again, one cannot seethe a string of words. In fact, seethe is intransitive and can’t even be done to a person in the way that mocking and scolding can.
I will grant that this rule is rather grammatically nit-picky. However, ever since it was first pointed out to me in a creative writing workshop, it has become a huge pet peeve. There really are only a handful of words that can be used interchangeably with “to say:” speak, utter, whisper, shout, et cetera. Any other verb you want to use needs to be fit in the sentence in a different way, like the following:
‘Any day now, Green,’ Radeth said in a mocking tone of voice.
Now, onto the more controversial rule of dialogue: use the word ‘said’ as much as possible. Honestly, when I first heard this rule years ago, I didn’t believe. ‘Said’ just sounds like such a boring word! How could it possibly be good writing advice to use it most of the time in lieu of more flavorful verbs.
Yet, time and again, in both the workshop I attended as well as in writing panels, online forums, and writing blogs, I keep seeing this rule being espoused. On some writing message board recently, I actually saw someone say something to the effect of, “You can always tell a newbie writer by two things: they rarely use the word ‘said,’ and they overuse adverbs.” Guilty as charged, on both counts.
And, hell, that many published authors can’t be wrong. So I am skeptically accepting the second rule of dialogue discussed here.
So, what do you say?
Teehee, see what I did there?
Do you agree or disagree with my two rules of dialogue? Are there other rules of dialogue to which you adhere?
Until next time,