How much thought have you given to the verbs you’re using to carry dialogue in your novel? Elmore Leonard believes said is the only verb you should use, yet there are accomplished writers out there ignoring his recommendation. Who’s right?
Be Your Own Copy Editor #8
It’s impossible to talk about choosing verbs to use for speaker attributions in the context of writing genre fiction without taking into consideration what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject. You may have read Leonard’s highly influential essay ‘Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle’, first published in the New York Times in 2001 and later published as a book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In case you haven’t, though, and you’re also unfamiliar with Elmore Leonard and his novels, let me explain that he’s about as ‘show, don’t tell’ as it’s possible for a writer to be without completely disappearing in a puff of smoke. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if Leonard’s characters receive his book royalties, not Leonard. Anyway, in the New York Times essay, Leonard talks about how he makes himself invisible in his work. One of his invisibility cloaks is rule three: ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ He says, ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’
Most of the writers of the novels I edit more or less follow Leonard’s injunction. Said is definitely the verb du jour. Some writers who have a strong preference for said also use an occasional asked or replied, but that’s usually about it. However, there are authors out there doing good work with a bigger verb palette than Leonard recommends you use. Ian Rankin, whom I talked about two blogs ago, is one of them. A few percent of the way into Standing in Another Man’s Grave (I read the book on my Kindle), Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, we’ve racked up intoned, repeated, asked, replied and muttered, as well as said. Like Leonard, Rankin is both a great stylist and writes cracking dialogue. He’s also at the ‘show, don’t tell’ end of the storytelling spectrum, and no one’s going to get far accusing him of making schoolboy errors in terms of craft. So who’s right? Leonard or Rankin?
Of course, really there is no right or wrong. Leonard writes like Leonard, Rankin writes like Rankin, and their choice of language works for them and the type of characters and worlds they are trying to portray. Using said alone is entirely in keeping with the macho dynamics of Leonard’s novels, whose characters keep their cards close to their chests and are more likely to pull a gun than gasp or grumble. But if, say, you were writing a novel set in the world of haute couture and writing scenes in which make-up artists, fashion designers, hairstylists and models flap about and have hissy fits backstage during a runway show, you might not want to use said after said after said.
That’s not to say, however, there aren’t both good verb choices and choices of the not-so-great variety.
Let’s take a good look at Leonard’s position. He’s certainly right that said is the most transparent, most discreet verb available. It sits unobtrusively in a sentence containing direct speech, usually nestling after the most important bit, the dialogue itself. Part of the reason said has such a discreet presence in dialogue-giving sentences is it’s also the main verb we use in informal conversation when we report direct speech. When was the last time you had a coffee with someone and he or she relayed gossip by saying things like ‘Then I commented . . . Then she stated . . . Then he probed . . . Then I countered . . .’? Doesn’t happen, does it? Usually said is used. Said is so bedded in, in both fiction and speech, that it is hardly noticeable. It performs the function of linking speaker to spoken in as mechanical a way as is possible with a verb. So said is definitely a good choice if invisibility is what you’re after.
However, like people often do when they’re trying to make a point, Leonard skews the debate somewhat. He backs up his argument for only using said by rattling off a few highly undesirable verbs when he gives examples demonstrating the perils of veering from said, and he ignores verbs for which sounder arguments can be found.
First, let’s look at a couple of those bad verbs Leonard cites and pin down why they aren’t good. If you look up to gasp at Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), you will find it says it can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech – in other words, it’s acceptable in grammar terms to use to gasp to carry dialogue. Of course to gasp can also be used as an intransitive verb – one which doesn’t take an object – that means, quoting ODO, to ‘catch one’s breath with an open mouth’.
Before we continue, let me run through that grammar, since it underpins the discussion a little. When you write a line of dialogue and couple it with a speaker attribution, the dialogue is the grammatical object. Look at this:
‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever,’ Ian said.
In that sentence, Ian is the subject, said is the verb, and ‘Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever’ is the object. The verb to say is transitive; it needs an object. Someone has to say something. In this case, the something someone – Ian – says is the line bigging up Timothy Dalton. Now look at this:
‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,’ Rita gasped.
That’s a perfectly acceptable sentence in terms of grammar, since, as ODO says, to gasp can be used as an object-taking verb with direct speech. You can say someone gasps a line of dialogue, in other words. However, though it may be acceptable grammatically, try catching your breath with an open mouth and speaking at the same time and you quickly realise it’s not actually possible to do both those things at once. (Even if it were, you’d need to use to gasp in conjunction with a verb like to say to reflect two actions are being performed simultaneously.) In which case, when an author writes that a character gasped a line of dialogue, what does he or she mean to say happened?
I have no idea, and I suspect the writer of a line like that hasn’t thought through what he or she is saying either. A sentence like the one above has no connection with the real world. It exists in a category of artificiality marked ‘literature’; it doesn’t represent an attempt to accurately evoke the world out there on the page.
But in my imagination I can see and hear a character gasping in horror or astonishment, then saying something, a sequence of actions to gasp can help convey in its guise as a no-object verb.
Rita gasped. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’
Other verbs writers sometimes try to use in the same way as to gasp include to chuckle, to sigh and to laugh (I say ‘try to’, since we copy editors are likely to cull them). None of these three verbs bear the fig leaf of respectability conferred by a listing in ODO as an object-taking verb used in conjunction with direct speech. All three are no-object verbs, which means they don’t have the grammar credentials to carry dialogue, though I have to say it seems somewhat arbitrary to me that we green-light gasped in grammar terms but not chuckled and sighed. So, chuckled, sighed and laughed should be rejected as dialogue carriers before you’ve even thought about whether it’s possible to chuckle, sigh or laugh a sentence, which of course it’s not, and so should other verbs of their kind. On the other hand, if you do think someone can, say, both laugh and speak simultaneously – and I advise you to try whatever combination of action and speech you wish to portray – you might want to add a present participle after the dialogue-carrying verb, like this:
‘I can’t believe you think Timothy Dalton was a better Bond than Sean Connery,’ Rita said, laughing.
Now let’s take a look at lied, another verb Leonard cites in his essay as a bad choice. First, let’s imagine our Timothy Dalton fan, Ian, later has a conversation with a woman he fancies who’s got a crush on Daniel Craig. Our imaginary author writes this:
‘I think Timothy Dalton was a crap Bond,’ Ian lied. ‘Daniel Craig represents the very pinnacle of 007-ness.’
In this case, the lied is redundant; we know Ian is lying, because he told Rita earlier he thinks Timothy Dalton was the best Bond ever. Here we have a bad case of show and tell. The dialogue shows the reader Ian is lying, then the verb reiterates he’s lying. The author is over-managing the story and not letting it unfold by itself, perhaps because he or she isn’t confident the reader is really following what’s going on. Lied could also be used to tell the reader for the first time a character is lying, in which case the author using it would be guilty of the lesser offence of telling alone.
A lot of the other verbs used by authors also tell the reader something the dialogue shows. Imagine Ian and two friends have just seen Skyfall, last year’s Bond film, and afterwards they’re sitting in a bar, discussing the movie.
‘That opening fight scene on the train was ridiculous,’ Ian said. ‘Totally unrealistic. Though I’m sure Tim Dalton could’ve pulled it off.’
‘It was a James Bond film, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary,’ Blake countered. ‘The whole point of Bond films is they’re not realistic.’
Sean shook his head slowly and stared into the distance. ‘I’m never going to pay to see a Bond film again,’ he avowed.
Both countered and avowed tell us things we already know from having read the dialogue. Let’s look at the sentence containing avowed. Since to avow means to declare frankly and openly, we get that Sean is declaring something openly and frankly because – yes – the opinion he’s giving can be characterised as both frank and the utterance of someone who’s being open. We’re back to show and tell.
But not all verbs other than said should necessarily be treated with suspicion. Here comes a line from Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Inspector Rebus is listening to music in the car and realises he’s misheard a song lyric. He’s on his own.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus muttered to himself.
By using the verb to mutter, Rankin tells the reader exactly how Rebus says the line – in a low voice with a note of irritation in it. I don’t know what a Leonard disciple would do here.
‘Time to get your ears checked,’ Rebus said to himself.
Actually, in this case, a Leonard disciple might conclude the line of dialogue can be given without a speaker attribution, since Rebus is alone in the car and there can be no confusion over who’s speaking. But either way, the reader wouldn’t get that Rebus speaks in a low voice with a note of irritation in it – two qualities conveyed by the verb to mutter. In this case, said is too blunt an instrument; the author needs a more precise verb to tell readers how he or she wants them to imagine the line is spoken. Here are three more verbs that fall into the same category as muttered: whispered, shouted and intoned. These kinds of verbs give information about the volume at which a character says a line or the way he or she says it, or both.
Another verb you can make a good argument for using is asked. On the one hand, a question in direct speech is self-evidently a question – the question mark is one big giveaway – so adding an asked does come across as another case of show, then tell. On the other hand, I suspect some authors feel said isn’t appropriate for questions, because they think it only works with statements. I notice, for instance, that Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch detective novels, is a said purist in his novel The Drop until he has to attribute a question, in which case he rolls out an asked.
Asked is actually a fairly invisible verb. I suspect that if Leonard did go stir-crazy as a reaction to the claustrophobia of using said all the time and treated himself to a new verb, it would be asked. Again, asked is a verb that is bedded in because it’s used a lot in conversation as well as fiction. Also, asked doesn’t do anywhere near as much telling as verbs like avowed and countered, because it doesn’t give an interpretation or summary of what a character is asking. Similarly, replied, responded and answered also mechanically state the relationship between one unit of discourse and another, but no more. They don’t say anything about the content of the response they are tagged to. It’s more difficult to justify using these three verbs than it is to justify using asked, however, since they are only ever attached to statements, and said would work in their places.
Incidentally, said actually falls into the same category as verbs like asked and replied in that it, too, states the obvious. Just as the question mark at the end of a line of dialogue indicates someone’s asking a question, quotation marks enclosing dialogue tell the reader someone is saying something. So said, too, tells the reader something he or she is also being shown, but the verb is so bedded in that it’s almost transparent.
Another category of verbs authors sometimes use consists of ones that are more or less synonyms for said. I’m thinking here of verbs like commented and stated, and I say ‘more or less synonyms’ because when a writer uses commented, for example, I tend to hear the line of dialogue it’s attached to in a comment-giving type of way. But maybe that’s just me – I don’t know. We’re entering highly subjective territory here.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
So, I’ve established some categories we can use when classifying dialogue-carrying verbs and thinking about their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll summarise what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of the verbs or verb in each category, starting with what I consider the good and working my way towards the bad and the ugly.
1. The workhorse, said. The advantage of said is that it’s almost invisible. A disadvantage is it’s something of a blunt instrument. You may also feel said pulls against the question mark at the end of a direct question and wish to use asked instead.
2. Verbs such as muttered, whispered, intoned and shouted. These serve a legitimate function in that they fine-tune the reader’s understanding of how a character says a line. They are more precise than said, but not as discreet and invisible.
3. Asked. This verb is pretty invisible, though perhaps not quite as discreet as said. Some writers might feel the fact asked states the obvious – that a character asks a question, something indicated by the question mark – is outweighed by the drawback of using said in its place, which they may maintain only works with statements.
4. Replied, responded and answered. Again, these state the obvious – in this case, that a character is answering a question – but, like asked, they are not that noticeable (I would say replied and answered are the least visible of the three, and responded is both the most visible and most formal). But said can be used in the place of these verbs and is less visible.
5. Synonyms or near synonyms for said, such as stated and commented. These are not as discreet as said, but writers who aren’t said purists might use them for the sake of variety, and perhaps they provoke readers into hearing a character say a line in a slightly different way from how they would were said used. (You tell me.)
6. Verbs like avowed and countered that summarise and interpret a line of dialogue. It’s very hard to justify the use of these. They usually tell the reader something he or she has just been shown, and they are therefore redundant. They are also intrusive.
7. Verbs like gasped, chuckled and laughed. These may be sanctioned as verbs you can use to carry dialogue (gasped, for example), or may not (laughed), but whatever the case, they’re to be avoided, since they don’t convey how people in the real world speak.
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT YOUR VERBS
1. Does a particular verb help deliver a line to the reader in a way that reflects how people actually speak?
2. Does the verb tell the reader something he or she is shown by the line of dialogue it’s attached to?
3. How discreet is the verb?
4. How precise is the verb?
5. Does the verb pass the grammar test of being an object-taking verb?
6. Are the verbs you’re using a good match for the fictional world you’re trying to portray?
My next blog will carry on from here. I’ll assume you’ve made your decisions about which verbs you’re going to use to carry dialogue and turn my attention to speaker attributions as a whole (‘Rita said’, ‘Ian asked’, etc.). As always, I’ll focus on issues I commonly see in manuscripts.
Incidentally, Leonard’s New York Times article was one of a series called ‘Writers on Writing’ that the paper ran. It included contributions by Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, and the pieces are a real gold mine. You can find the articles here. Also, inspired by Leonard’s ten rules, the Guardian asked a number of well-known authors, among them Neil Gaiman, PD James and Jonathan Franzen, to share their own ten rules for writers, and you can find those here.
Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. ‘Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, and so on,’ Marcus asseverated (sorry, Mr Leonard).
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