Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Script


Book of Hours - made for Francois I, Paris or Tours, dated 1532-1540.

Always got a kick out of the dialogue ribbons issuing from the speaker's mouths in these illuminations. Sometimes have the irreligious urge to replace them with something less instructional.

Reading further in Miss Bustlewhistle's Ye Olde Grammar Booke of Composition, found these comments on Dialogue:

1. No conversation is preferable to stilted, unnatural talk that does not fit the characters.

2. Likewise, conversation which does not serve a purpose - characterize or advance the plot - should be rigidly excluded from the story.

3. To learn to write dialogue one must get out among people and observe their mannerisms.

4. The introductory he said, etc. may be placed at the beginning, the middle or the end of the speech.

5. If there is no possibility of confusion, the introductory expression may be omitted.

6. Make dialogue interesting by keeping speeches short, use freely colloquialisms, contractions and contradictions, have one speaker interrupt another, have a character ignore a question and ask another, or anticipate a question before it is asked, and break the dialogue with short passages of description and comment.

The only deviance from today's accepted canon is advice to use saidisms: grumbled, grunted, stuttered, muttered, etc.
While I think the occasional use of saidisms is permissible - for reasons of pace, for example - most saidisms annoy the hell out of me.
I suspect, also, they mark a piece as immature by today's critics.
Any thoughts?

50 comments:

Erik Ivan James said...

I agree with you 100% on the saidisms. Although they do add on occasion, as you stated, they certainly can be a distraction from the emotions or thoughts the reader may actually be feeling. I try to get by with "he said/she said" as best I can. Or, none at all.

Good post.

James Goodman said...

Indeed, when a writer uses too many saidisms its as if they cringed when they realized how many times they used the word said and tried to replace it as often as possible. Very distracting.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik.
Me too.

That might well be one reason, James, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Once a conversation is going, it isn't difficult to tell who said what based on context and knowledge of the character's personality. Even too many of the simple "He said"s get in the way. -V95

kmfrontain said...

I hate using just said. I agree we need to avoid overuse of other speech tags, but when I want to say someone yelled, I say he yelled. I don't rely on a "he said" if it isn't strong enough. When we add in this anti-saidism advice to the other bullshit of "exclamation marks are not necessary", we get the stupidest speech I've ever read, where readers must guess all the emotions and yelling sounds like that very bland character from television who never ever raises his voice. What does he do? Visine ads, I think. Boring.

kmfrontain said...

Oh, btw, what advice to use saidims? I've never seen any. It's all advice against saidisms. I really despise cut and dried rules against the use of something, which is stupid, because the full use of our langauge has devolved enough.

December Quinn said...

I do avoid "said", but that's because I prefer using action to identify dialogue (if I have to identify it.)

Since my characters tend to have very fast-paced conversations, I usually manage to avoid all tags. I occasionally use "grumble" or "whisper"--maybe once or twice a book.

I don't think it's a hard-and-fast rule, but yeah in general it seems like the writer is trying too hard.

jason evans said...

Someone (I don't recall who) relayed a bit of advice to me from a Stephen King book on writing. He advocates only using "said," because it is practically ignored by the reader, and is useful to drop in now and again to help keep straight who is talking. Beyond that, the voice of the speaker should be strong enough to identify the character. Once in a great while, I'll resort to a "whispered" or something like that, but very sparingly.

I also think a bit of description peppered in the dialog is essential for pacing. However, I've seen a tendency among folks who believe "said" is evil incarnate to manufacture little movements and descriptions to identify the speaker. The effect of that is fatal, I think.

"Whose briefcase is that?" Stephen pointed to the ground.

Sarah looked up. "I don't know."

"Do you think we should call the police?" Stephen glanced around the station.

"I really don't think there's any danger." Sarah folded her umbrella.

kmfrontain said...

LOL, Jason. Nice example of going overboard on no speech tags at all.

Hey, Bernita. Don't mind me if I seem uppity on this one. I get irritated when rules stop more than they help grow a field of art.

Jaye Wells said...

"I don't mind saidisms as long as they're not excessive or forced," Jaye pontificated.

Steve G said...

When it comes to the use of said, I have to admit, guilty. It's a learning experience.

anna said...

I agree with Jason. Personally
i think most people just slide right over said.

1. No conversation is preferable to stilted, unnatural talk that does not fit the characters.

yep for sure.

another great post Bernita, cut a clear path through the muddle of my brain... got rid of all the said wannabes. hee hee

Gabriele C. said...

The best saidism I found so far is, 'he ejaculated'. How that book got published is beyond me, since the author avoided a simple 'said' like the pest as far as I can say from the first three pages - didn't manage to read more.

Bernita said...

I think the reader expects alternate speech to be by alternate characters,V95.
But a whole page of that, without a few cues, like "he/she said" can be very confusing.

Yup, Karen, there are times when that stuff is absolutely necessary.
Otherwise, we get the impression of a monotone.
Judicious use of exclamation marks are also appreciated by the reader!

I was quoting from Ye Olde Book, Karen. The advice was intended to encourage young writers to introduce variety and avoid the sin of repetition.
My point was that much of the "new" writing advice is really very old.
"Rules" are not, I think, intended to be cut and dried, but many people take them as absolutes.
They are intended to be guidelines and warnings to avoid excess.

I rather like the use of action to define the speaker, December. A sort of double for your money thing.

Think there's some truth that "said" is almost invisible, Jason - with the usual caveats - sometimes the voice should not be invisible.
In your example I have no problem with the first action "pointed" but soon one yearns for a simple "said."

Karen, I know where you're coming from and largely agree.
But when one sees an MS with every single bit of dialogue tagged with a tonal synonym, or adverb, one can easily see how the "rule" arose.

~manufactured little movement in lieu~
"Jaye raised one immaculate eyebrow..."

There is nothing wrong with using "said," Steve. Really.

Bernita said...

Sonofabitch!
Blogger ate my comment.

V95, I think the usual reader expects alternate dialogue by alternate speakers. A whole page without some tags though can leave them confused.

Can become totally bland, Karen, I agree.
I think the "rules" are intended as guidelines, but people tend to take them as absolutes.
I was quoting from Ye Olde Book. My point was that much of the "new advice is really old.
The advice on verbals was intended to encourage young writers towards variety and to avoid repetition.

I rather like action indicators, December. A sort of double for the money thing.

bunnygirl said...

I agree that overly creative tags are a distraction. I mostly use "said," "told," and "asked," except for the rare occasion when someone really is whispering or shouting and it's not obvious from the action and word choice. Sometimes tags aren't needed at all. The trick to being unobtrusive is to get a good mix.

This isn't one of my best examples, but it illustrates the point:

As we neared the outskirts of town, we came upon a boy riding a donkey. This wouldn’t have been remarkable, except that Charlene turned to me in excitement. “That’s Tanner’s donkey!”

I took another look, and yes, it did appear to be the animal that Tanner had been riding for the last couple of days. Charlene and I approached the boy, and in a friendly way I said, “Nice donkey you got. Any more where that one came from?”

The boy shook his head. “I bought it from a man who’d just bought a horse and didn’t need a burro no more.”

“Oh. So you didn’t get it from a ranch?”

“No. I was walking to town, and the man went past, saw I was on foot and stopped. He said Paco here was slowing him down, and did I want him. We made a good bargain.”

“I’m sure you did."

“So when was this?” Charlene asked.

The boy looked at us both suspiciously. “It was earlier this morning, and why do you care? Paco ain’t stolen, is he?”

“No,” I said. “We know his former owner, is all. We were curious.”

We wished the boy well and continued on our way.

Bernita said...

Also think "said" is largely invisible - with the usual caveats, Jason.
I have no problem with the "pointed" in your example, but soon yearn for a simple "said."

I know where you are coming from, Karen, and largely agree.
However, one has only to read an MS with every bit of dialogue annotated by a synonym or a tonal adverb to see where the "rule" developed.

~manufactured little movement in lieu~~
"Jaye raised one immaculate eyebrow..."

There is nothing wrong with using said, Steve. Really.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Anna.
I caught that. You're bad.

That's another of the dangers of exuberant saidisms, Gabriele - the choice of obsoletes.

Bernita said...

Oh, bloody hell, I could have saved the effort, blogger posted it after all.

Thank you, Bunny. That is a very nice example.

Robyn said...

Gabriele, I read that book!

I tend to use said most; as previously noted, most readers skip right over it. And may I say, I enjoy using a bit of my own imagination in how the characters say things? If a scene is written well enough, I can tell all by myself that he's growling and she's whispering.

Kate Thornton said...

Jason raised one immaculate brow. This would have indicated sarcasm or disbelief in a normal person, but Jason had only one brow, an enormous caterpillar that crawled the breadth of his face, so the whole gesture tended to indicate surprise. "Oh, really?" he said.

Fun post Bernita!

Carla said...

At the risk of being a minority of one, I'll stick my head above the parapet and say I like variety in verbs, including speech verbs. The right choice of verb gives me an idea of tone or manner that I wouldn't pick up just from 'said' or the line by itself.
I find that if writing looks like it's consciously following a Rule it tends to lose me, regardless of what the Rule is.

Anonymous said...

Nothing like spamming yourself. -V95

Savannah Jordan said...

Depending on which character is speaking, and what frame of mind they are in, I might work in a saidism--I won't avoid a word that fits. I will avoid, however, using 'said' too much, because all I hear in my mind is "He said/She said arugment." So far, no one's complained about my dialogue, not even my editors *whew*

Bernita said...

Thank you, Kate.
My A-S prof had exactly that kind of brow - which he used to effect.

I find that if writing looks like it's consciously following a Rule it tends to lose me, regardless of what the Rule is.
That is an excellent observation, Carla.
I don't care to see the painful machinery either.

Then you must have the combination right, Savannah.

You think I should delete them, V95?

Bernita said...

Eh, Robyn, blogger did me again with a 500 error.
Wasn't ignoring you.
Your comment about "well-written" is well-taken.

Rick said...

Bernita, I must have missed your original reference to Ye Olde Book. When was it written? Perhaps readers of an earlier era - when popular fiction writing tended to be more florid than today - were more tolerant of said-bookisms.

In no era, you might think, would such toleration have been extended to he ejaculated ... though perhaps there was a time when that word did not have what we now regard as its primary meaning. (A quick glance through my old OED abridgement somewhat bears this out.)

Bernita said...

Written long before any of us were born, Rick, back in the 30s.
I agree that is likely the case about saidisms. Certainly they were used with abandon.
And yes,the sense of "to utter vehemently" was accepted in polite literature, prior to our era. Have seen it innocently in old, old novels.

Anonymous said...

No way! V95

Sela Carsen said...

Everything in moderation, I think. I stick with "said" for the most part, but some lines benefit from being grumbled or hissed. And I do love my action tags!

Ric said...

Fun reading today, he commented, archly. I agree that if the writer is doing his job, exclaimed and blurted are not necessary as a general rule. Great post.

Carla said...

I'm fairly sure I came across 'he ejaculated' in a Victorian novel (it might have been one of the Sherlock Holmes stories? But don't quote me on that because I haven't checked it). I recall it made me giggle, being 13 or so at the time, until I looked it up in the dictionary and found that the first definition given was 'utter suddenly'. Words shift their meanings. It would be a brave writer who'd use it in that sense now, though.

Robyn said...

I saw "he ejaculated" in a category romance about 20 years ago. My college dorm roommates and I howled; we were sure the author put in for the giggle.

Rick said...

A brave writer, or a foolish one! Compare how "gay" has completely lost its older meaning, which it retained in common usage at least as recently as 1934 (e.g., the movie "The Gay Divorcee"), and perhaps up to c. 1970.

An interesting word I learned about in a History of English course is "smock." To me (and generally today, I would guess) it merely denotes an artist's working overgarment. In Chaucer's day, IIRC, it meant a dress. Then it came to mean an under-dress - and vanished from the written language almost entirely, presumably because of the salacious overtones of ladies' undergarments. Only when that faded into disuse could it be revived with an innocuous meaning.

Will "kirtle" also someday make a comeback?

Bernita said...

Thank you, V95.

Think it's the rentless determination fora single form that might irritate me, Sela.

"Thank you, Ric," she said, smiling shyly.

Hee, Carla. You were precocious - compared to me.
Think I read way too much old stuff. Let me blame it on that anyway, instead of arrested development.
I still read it as vehemence, and object to it more on the basis of it sounding like an excessive version of "said" than anything.

I wouldn't want to bet on it being intentional, Robyn.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, the 'ejaculated' I found was in a modern book, and it kept company with 'elaborated', 'persisted' and other fun tags.

I think there's a degree of speech tags that work or don't. There's nothing wrong with the odd 'shout, whisper, ask, reply' and such, but words that look like someone hit the Most Exotic Choice button on an online Theseaurus distract from the actual dialogue.

Gabriele C. said...
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Gabriele C. said...
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Bonnie Calhoun said...

That's pretty cool because for the most part the advice is still truly valid.

So I guess we can say if we don't learn those particular points in writing, we've completely missed the boat!

Hey it's nice to see James up there. He hasn't been around much at all!

Gabriele C. said...

Sorry for the double post. Bernita, you should consider switching to the new version of Blogger; the old one is hosted on crappy servers and no longer maintained. Soon Blogger will switch everyone anyway.

Anonymous said...

There was a novel by Jean Plaidy called 'Gay Lord Robert', about Elizabeth I's Sweet Robin Dudley, published in the mid-70s, so it's a fair guess that the word hadn't got its modern meaning at that date. I can think of few words less appropriate for Sweet Robin :-)
There was a discussion on Sarah Johnson's blog Reading The Past about what title would be used if it was ever republished. I think we settled on Rampant Lord Robert. Boringly, a few months later the publishers did republish it, with the title Lord Robert. Marketing departments have no imagination.

Gabriele - I call it Thesaurus Bingo :-)
New Blogger has locked me out, BTW, so posting as Anon.
-Carla

Bernita said...

You've got that right, Gabriele. Any synonym will do, regardless of flow.
I should, I know. Glad I didn't go through the fuss with Beta though.

Yes, Rick. One is even hesitant to use the word "queer" for fear it will be misinterpreted or give umbrage where none is intended.

Seems James has had some "interesting times," Bonnie, but it is nice to see him.

ORION said...

Yanno.
Anytime anything is noticeable it takes the reader out of the story and that is not good.
I'm with donkey girl!
The variety with narrative and dialog makes an interesting piece.

ORION said...

shoot!
I meant bunny girl!

writtenwyrdd said...

I think most folks do ignore "said," but I resist dispensing with it, because these "must nots" bug the heck out of me, too.

I suppose that so long as whatever you use isn't redundant, overused, or draws too much attention to itself, you are all right.

Anonymous said...

"Lord, I have a problem!"
"What's the problem, Eve?"
"Lord, I know you've created me and have provided this beautiful garden and all of these wonderful animals and that hilarious comedy snake, but I'm just not happy."
"Why is that, Eve?" came the reply from above.
"Lord, I am lonely. And I'm sick to death of apples." "Well, Eve, in that case, I have a solution. I shall create a man for you."
"What's a 'man,' Lord?"
"This man will be a flawed creature, with aggressive tendencies, an enormous ego and an inability to empathize or listen to you properly, he'll basically give you a hard time. He'll be bigger, faster, and more muscular than you. He'll be really good at fighting and kicking a ball about and hunting fleet-footed ruminants, But, he'll be pretty good in the sack."
"I can put up with that," says Eve, with an ironically raised eyebrow.
"Yeah well, he's better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick. But, there is one condition."
"What's that, Lord?"
"You'll have to let him believe that I made him first."
:D :D :D

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Bernita said...

The idea seems to be, Pat, that one should not remind the reader s/he is reading.

Nicely put, Written.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla,
the new blogger was dragged into the mess by the old one last night, it seems. I'm sure Blogger would love to just get rid of the old one and switch every blog, but they have several million bloggers most of whom obviously refuse to change to the new service, and no one of the team is looking forward to move a few million blogs. :)

Bernita said...

I guess I'm simply an impediment to progress.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I was just tired of watching that clock turn round and round and round every time I posted or added a link to my sidebar. :)