He Said/She Sighed – Part One

She spits her words.
She spits her words.

I dislike lists of rules for writing fiction. There are many good writers whose work I can’t stand. And many books I’ve loved that were obviously flawed. I would not advise anyone to make a paint-by-number novel.

Big picture rules are good, like: A book should spend more words on important scenes and fewer words on unimportant scenes. That rule is hard to argue with.

Rules I roll my eyes at are nitpicky particulars like: Use “said” as your only verb in dialogue. That is a stupid rule. Or, rather, it is stupid to think of that as a rule.

It is important to know the effects of various writing techniques so you can use those techniques deliberately for greater effect. Knowing that readers barely notice the word “said,” so it’s okay to repeat it over and over on a page, is important.

He growls his words.
He growls his words.

But the rule “only use said” is not telling you how to get the effect you want; it’s telling you what effect you should try to get. And that is not a matter of correctness; it is a matter of taste. And you and the rule-maker may not like the same books. Just because he can’t stand reading “he whispered” or “she yelled” doesn’t mean it’s bad form. It’s simply his pet peeve.

People whisper things they don’t want other people to hear. People shout things when they’re angry. People mutter when they’re passive aggressive. People stutter when they’re nervous, groan when they’re in pain. And there is nothing wrong with using such verbs when the circumstances of a scene call for it.

It is bad writing to have people shout and cry and whisper and moan about what’s for dinner. But it’s bad because the scene is sentimental or melodramatic not because the verbs are grammatically incorrect. When a scene calls for it, these verbs can say a lot in one little word.

It is bad writing to have people say something with a verb that makes speech impossible, like “he swallowed” (unless he swallowed his words metaphorically and didn’t say them out loud). And it’s bad writing to use a verb that is irrelevant to speech, like “he glared” (unless he is telepathic). Rewrite those.

But it’s okay to use metaphorical verbs like “babble” and “snap” and “croak” and, yes, even “hiss.”

Humans don't hiss.
“Ssstay away, sssstupid!”

Note to nitpickers: The hiss of speech doesn’t have to be on sibilants. Humans do not hiss. The meaning of “hiss” in dialogue is not “sssss. If someone is hissing “ssstay away sssilly” you’d better spell it out because no reader is going to assume the speaker is actually hissing the sibilants – unless you’ve already said they’re insane and one of their symptoms is hissing like a snake. Hissing in dialogue means to speak in quiet anger. Like the hiss of a snake or a cat, it is a small noise with a big angry warning attached to it. It is a perfectly good word for a whisper-shout. So please don’t show off your ignorance by calling out an author for saying a character hissed, “Pick that up” to her unruly child in church. You might not like the usage, but it is not bad grammar.

You can have people spew their words, spit their words, growl them, bark them, bray them if you like. None of it is grammatically incorrect. Just as you can have your character drag her heart to the door, once she gets there she can sigh hello if you want her to. Readers love a good metaphor; why bar them from dialogue? The question is not whether it’s correct usage. (It is.) The question is whether it works. If it enhances the scene and makes it clearer, more vivid, more real and alive, then it’s good usage. If it obscures the action and slows the understanding and annoys the reader, it’s bad usage.

Please your readers and your self.
Please your readers and your self.

Using the invisible “said” most of the time will make other verbs more effective when they are called for. If you as a writer never feel they are called for, that’s fine. But if you do feel like your character needs to shout or whisper – because, say, they’re actually shouting or whispering – just say so. And if you think it enriches the scene, the character, and the meaning of the dialogue to have your character screech or purr or ooze her words, then let her do so. If the scene is good, it will work. (It will annoy some readers but it will delight others. You can’t please everyone.)

I have more to say on this issue, but that’s enough said for this Friday.

11 Comments on “He Said/She Sighed – Part One

  1. If my dialogue tag is descriptive, I often change it to a separate sentence:
    “Enough,” he snarled.
    “Enough.” He snarled at her.
    and then enhance it to:
    “Enough.” His veneer of civility cracked and he snarled at her like a beast.
    In my re-writes I’m fond of deleting as many dialogue tags as possible and interleaving dialogue utterances with sentences that describe the character’s action, rendering the tags unnecessary.

    • For sure it’s good to switch things up for better flow, and some description of what characters are doing around their dialogue is important to bring the scene to life. But I would say that of the three examples you just gave here, the simplest – “Enough,” he snarled – is the best because in this case the snarling describes how he says his words. The other two read as if he is speaking and then following up with a snarl, which is decidedly odd. (“Enough. Rrrowrr.” )

      I would guess that you have read a rule like, “don’t use verbs other than said for dialogue” and so you feel like you had to put the snarling somewhere else, but what you really mean is that he is speaking like a snarling animal – so I’d advise you to either keep him snarling the words or, perhaps better, have his speech followed by some other bestial action that isn’t snarling but that gets the emotion across. That’s my two cents. Thanks for commenting.:-)

    • Sorry, but I’d agree with Catherine here. If I encountered the second or especially the third one, I’d be startled and distracted. Out of context, I’d assume we were probably dealing with a werewolf, a vampire, or some other fanged creature wont to show his teeth.

      The first option is the most seamless–unless, for some reason, you want to highlight this animistic propensity. I mean, I have a character who will just randomly hiss and snarl at people as part of her daily vitriolic MO, but it’s notable enough that people have come to nickname her “Alleycat.” It’s only for a character like her that I would use your second and third examples.

      If you want the snarl and the “enough” to happen at the same time, it need to be a tag–or, on a case-by-case basis, preceding. If you want the snarl to happen following the dialogue, then separating it like you have is the way to go.

      • Thanks for taking the time to comment. Just by the way, I occasionally hiss – but not at random strangers, only at aggressive tomcats or inanimate objects on which I stub a toe (and maybe once or twice at my kids in lieu of swearing). It’s extremely satisfying and I can see how the habit could spin out of control for a character of dubious mental health. But alas, it’s weird in real life, and whatever the hiss might communicate so perfectly on the giving end, on the receiving end all it says is “that person hissing is weird.” (Unless there’s a cat on the receiving end, in which case it is good form.)

  2. Me and my love of colorful variation of dialogue tags kiss this post.

    I also happen to have a condition where I’m very much (and, often, painfully) aware of the repetition of “said”, so… never say “readers /never/ notice”; we nutty outliers exist.

  3. Pingback: He Said/She Sighed – Part 1 (HT: @ginad129) | Literarium – The Blog

  4. Pingback: He Said/ She Sighed Part 3 – Enough Already! | Deadline? What Deadline?

  5. Pingback: He Said/She Sighed (HYSRT!) | Ever On Word

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