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Passive Aggressors

There’s not a lot of love going around for the passive. The list of those who’ve given it a mauling includes George Orwell, Strunk and White, and Stephen King. But is it really such a bad thing to use in fiction specifically? And do the people who criticize it always know what they’re talking about?

Be Your Own Copy Editor #10

A piece of writing advice that circulates and circulates is that you should avoid using the passive. American writers and editors in particular will recognise this injunction. A highly influential source of the advice is Elements of Style, by William Strunk and EB White – ‘The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,’ they write. Elements is not particularly well known on this side of the Atlantic, but in the States it is considered by many to be a writing bible, and Time says it’s one of the 100 most influential books written in English of the last 90 years.

The list of passive aggressors also includes George Orwell, who, in an essay written in 1946 called ‘Politics and the English Language’, tells us to never use the passive where we can use the active (if you don’t know what either ‘passive’ or ‘active’ means, don’t worry, because I’m going to explain later). But he shoots himself in the foot somewhat by using the passive when he tells us to avoid it (‘the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active,’ he complains apparently without any irony whatsoever).

However, there doesn’t appear to be much discussion out there about whether it’s a good idea to use the passive in fiction specifically, though I notice that in On Writing, which talks about fiction-writing craft, Stephen King directs a few hard punches towards the passive’s solar plexus, equating the passive with timidity, safety, passivity and terrorism. (Okay, I made that last bit up.) Whether or not its use in fiction is discussed much, I suspect many fiction writers have been conditioned to believe the passive is a bad thing while passing through the higher education system, since you don’t have to dig hard to find an incredible amount of hostility being directed towards it by those marking student essays.

What makes discussion about the passive a little difficult is that a lot of the people who talk and write about it wouldn’t actually know what a passive-voice clause looked like if it hit them in the face – and that includes academics, writing tutors, self-appointed writing experts and a few editors, judging by the misinformed discussions I’ve seen about the passive on the Net. Often people don’t recognise it when they see it, or they see it when it’s not there. There are a fair few misconceptions and misunderstandings about the passive, such as the belief it can only be formed with the verb to be (actually, to get is used a lot, and to have and a handful of other verbs can feature in passives in certain situations) and it gives a formal tone to writing (‘Vince got his chest waxed’ is formal?). All of this means that before talking about the virtues or otherwise of the passive in the context of writing and editing fiction, I’ll need to establish what it looks like.

I’ll break the passive down into two similar but different types. To identify passive-voice clauses of both types, we need to take a close look at verb phrases. When I use the term ‘verb phrase’, I mean a verb string, such as could have been drinking in ‘He could have been drinking antifreeze for all he cared,’ or was trying to sober up in ‘He was trying to sober up.’ (Note that the term ‘verb phrase’ has a different meaning in linguistics from this one, which comes from the world of teaching English to speakers of other languages. Also note that neither example sentence is written in the passive voice.)

What we’re looking for in the verb phrase to identify a passive-voice clause of the first type are two things combined: a penultimate verb form that’s a form of either the verb to be or to get, and a past participle as the final verb form.

A form of to be or to get + a past participle

Let’s clarify what past participles look like. As labels go, ‘past participle’ is a pretty bad one, since past participles are not always used to talk about the past. However, it’s the term everyone uses, so we’re stuck with it. If you look at a verb table of the type that foreigners use while studying English, you will see three forms are always given – and the last is the past participle. For example, the past participle of the verb to mug is mugged (mug, mugged, mugged), and the past participle of to know is known (know, knew, known). (In case you’re wondering, the first of the three verb forms is the base form, or infinitive, and the second is the past-simple-tense form.)

So, in the sentence ‘My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona,’ the following is a passive-voice clause:

 My mother was mugged . . .

We know it’s passive voice because it meets our criteria: we’ve got a past participle at the end of the verb phrase (‘mugged’), preceded by a form of to be or to get (‘was’).

My mother was mugged . . .

                       to be + past participle

A passive-voice clause needs a grammatical subject, too – which it has in our example clause (‘My mother’).

My mother was mugged . . .

  Subject + to be + past participle

We can form a passive of this type using the verb to get as well.

My mother got mugged while visiting Barcelona.

Subject + to get + past participle

Notice how using to get instead of to be gives a more colloquial sentence.

So, to reiterate, the combination we’re looking for is the following:

Subject + to be or to get + past participle

Incidentally, my mother really was mugged in Barcelona. A thief riding on the back of a scooter tried to wrench her camera from her. She wouldn’t let go of the camera strap, and she was dragged along the road for a while. But she’s okay now, thanks – this happened a long time ago.

Often the form of to be or to get will be right next to the past participle, as in the example clauses above, but not always. Sometimes an adverb or two will get in between them – for instance, ‘viciously’ in the following:

My mother was viciously attacked while in Barcelona.

Subject + to be + adverb + past participle

I’ve used simple sentences with simple verb phrases for the sake of clarity, but of course verb phrases can be more complex. The italicized parts of the following example sentences are all passives:

My mother has been mugged only once in her life.

My mother could have been mugged again if she hadn’t decided afterwards to keep her valuables in the safe at the hotel.

My mother would never have been mugged if she’d kept her camera in her bag.

My mother is definitely not going to get mugged when she visits Lisbon, because she’s much more aware about safety now.

Let’s now compare the active with the passive so that we can see the difference between the two. Here’s an active-voice sentence:

The police later caught my mother’s mugger.

In this sentence, the grammatical subject, ‘The police’, is performing the action of the verb – catching my mother’s mugger. This is therefore an active-voice sentence. The subject is in the doing role. By contrast, in a passive-voice clause such as ‘My mother was mugged’, the receiver of the verb action, the person or thing having something done to him or her or it, my mum in this case, is the subject. (Note that we have to be careful about saying verbs express actions, since sometimes they don’t.)

I would hazard a guess that the passive structure I’ve just outlined is the main one stalking the highways and byways of written English. It certainly appears to be the one people who talk about the passive have in mind. There is another fairly prolific type, though, and it never seems to get a mention – the have/get something done structure.

With this type of passive, usually either the verb to have or to get is used in the penultimate-verb-form slot, and to be is never used. Here is an example:

Tina got her roots done yesterday.

In that sentence, we’ve got a subject (‘Tina’), a form of to get (‘got’) as the penultimate verb form in the verb phrase, and a past participle as the final verb form (‘done’). But the big difference between this type of passive and the first type is that a noun phrase (‘her roots’ in this instance) interrupts the verb phrase, coming immediately before the past participle.

Tina got her roots done yesterday.

Subject + to get + noun phrase + past participle

Here is the sentence using the verb to have:

Tina had her roots done yesterday.

Subject + to have + noun phrase + past participle

Note how informal sounding this second type of passive can be. Here are some further sentences written using the have/get something done structure:

Jeff and Gemma are getting their conservatory built by an amazing Polish builder.

Winston has his dreads done by a barber over in Elephant & Castle.

Rita is having her car MOT’d next Monday.

It would be wrong to say that what I’ve given you is all you need to know to recognise the passive, but it is a lot of what you need to know. If I were trying to give a complete picture, I would point out a few more things. First, with the first type of passive, sometimes the verb in the penultimate-verb-form slot is left out. Imagine, for example, the newspaper headline ‘Marcus’s Mother Mugged in Barcelona’. That’s a passive with ‘is’ omitted: ‘Marcus’s Mother [is] mugged in Barcelona’. Second, you’ll occasionally see the have/get something done structure used with verbs other than to have and to get – for example, to see in ‘I saw this guy beaten to death right in front of my very eyes.’ Third, in English dialects, present participles can be used in the past participle slot to form a passive, usually in association with the verb to need – for instance, ‘This cheese needs eating before it goes off’ is a passive (‘eating’ is the present participle here).

I learned those last two things while researching this blog – they were news to me – thanks to the writings of Geoffrey K Pullum, who is professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and the scourge of anti-passive propagandists everywhere. If you want to get a black belt second dan in the passive voice, I suggest you read this article of his, though unless you’ve studied linguistics, you’re likely to find it a challenging read. In fact, award yourself a black belt third dan if you can assimilate everything he says.

Is there a place in fiction for sentences like ‘My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona’ and ‘Tina had her roots done yesterday’ and ‘This cheese needs eating before it goes off’? Of course there is. The passive has a legitimate place in writing in general and fiction in particular, and it most certainly has a legitimate and important place in writing and talking about crime.

Crime novelists naturally reach for the passive when they don’t want to reveal who did something – a murder, say. Imagine the following sentence near the beginning of a crime story:

Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy.

We have a passive clause there – ‘Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered’ – and the person who killed Jemma, whom we can refer to as the agent of the action, murdering Jemma, isn’t mentioned. The above sentence is a very natural one for a crime novelist to write. If the sentence were written in the active voice, making the agent of the action the subject of the sentence, the denouement of the entire novel, who killed Jemma, would be given away:

Caretaker Jason Stephens murdered schoolgirl Jemma Richards while she was on her way home from North Grange Academy, the school he worked at and she attended.

Great,’ says the reader, ‘I’ve only got to page 8, and the author has already told me who done it. May as well put my Kindle down and get to work building that winter shelter for feral cats I’ve been putting off.’

The original sentence, ‘Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy,’ would also be a natural one for a newspaper reporter to include in a news story. Imagine Jemma’s body was found yesterday, and the police don’t yet know who murdered her. In this case the passive is used partly because the agent of the action is unknown.

Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy. In a statement, West Mercia Police asked anyone who witnessed any suspicious activity in the streets around the school between 4 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. yesterday to contact them.

But note that not mentioning the person or thing that performs a verb action isn’t a defining characteristic of the passive. We can reveal the agent of an action while using the passive voice:

Jemma Richards was murdered by caretaker Jason Stephens while she was on her way home from North Grange Academy, the school he worked at and she attended.

Writers naturally reach for the passive when they know the agent of an action but don’t want to give that person or thing top billing in a sentence. Let’s return to the sentence about my mother getting mugged to clarify that point.

My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona.

I don’t actually know who mugged my mother, though I could’ve found out at the time, since the guy who did it was arrested soon after. But finding out who mugged my mother didn’t seem important to me and still doesn’t, since I was – and am – more concerned about her than I am about the mugger. The sentence above reflects that, putting my mum in the spotlight there at the beginning of the sentence while not even mentioning the mugger. Imagine if I did convert that passive-voice clause into an active-voice one, giving the mugger – whom, as I said, I don’t know from Adam – top billing (and a made-up name):

Oriol Penlaver mugged my mother while she was visiting Barcelona.

A reader would ask, who is this Oriol Penlaver guy? Is he some kind of super-thief? Should I have heard of him? Suddenly Oriol is in the spotlight rather than my poor mum, whom Oriol dragged behind his scooter while stealing her camera, for crying out loud.

One of the silly things that anti-passive propagandists do – actually, I’ve been somewhat guilty of the converse in this blog – is invent a daft passive-voice sentence as an example of why using the passive is so very wrong. They parade a sentence like the following, to jeers and catcalls from readers:

The ball was kicked by the boy.

 Then, to cheers, they restore sentence-level feng shui:

The boy kicked the ball.

This kind of thing is plain stupid and doesn’t relate to real-world writing. The passive doesn’t exist only in relation to the active, and the active doesn’t exist only in relation to the passive. They’re just different, and we use them at different times for different purposes. If English is your first language, it’s highly unlikely that you ever think about whether to use the passive or active voice while writing a sentence in your novel. You don’t wake up in the morning, yawn, stretch out your arms and think, I really want to write a passive-voice clause today. Or, while at your keyboard, think, I’ve written four active-voice clauses in a row. Perhaps I should now follow them with one written in the passive. You just naturally select the passive voice when it can perform a function that you want performed in a particular passage. Same goes for the active, of course.

In my day-to-day copy editing, I don’t actually come across many occasions when I need to pick up an author on his or her use of the passive. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I suspect the reason the passive isn’t much of an issue isn’t that the writers I work with have already purged their paragraphs of sentences like ‘The bar was gone up to by Jake, and a Rolling Rock was ordered by him,’ converting them into the active (‘Jake went up to the bar and ordered a Rolling Rock’). When I do come across a passive-voice clause that doesn’t seem to sit right, I usually point out that there’s nothing wrong with using the passive per se, just that in this particular instance using it might not be a good idea.

What I occasionally see and flag – and what you might want to look out for as you edit your novel – is a passage like the one that follows. Imagine a private investigator called Arturio visits a mansion. He’s come to interview a rich playboy called Gerald, who may be involved in an insurance fraud and subsequent murder.

Arturio knocked on the door, then stood back, with his hands in his pockets. The door was opened. Arturio went in and waited in the hallway. He could hear someone coming down the stairs.

Our passive-voice sentence here is ‘The door was opened,’ and the problem is that readers are going to wonder who it was who opened the door. There’s a little hole in the narrative. This could actually be fixed while still using the passive – ‘The door was opened by the maid’ – or an active-voice sentence could be used: ‘The maid opened the door.’ Note how the first revision brings the maid into the story but keeps the focus on the door, while the second brings the maid into the spotlight.

I suspect writers write sentences like ‘The door was opened’ in the context above because they feel that if they bring the maid into the story, they will have to describe her and develop her as a character, when what they really want to do is get Arturio in the same room as Gerald with minimum fuss, because that’s the scene that’s going to move the story forwards. It’s a valid concern. If you write the same scene in the way that follows instead, you’re creating the expectation that you’re going to develop the maid character, and readers will feel short-changed if you don’t.

Arturio knocked on the door, then stood back, with his hands in his pockets. The maid opened the door. She was wearing a pink hoodie with ‘Babe’ written across the chest and grey tracksuit bottoms, had her hair tied back in a ponytail, and was holding a damp cloth in one hand. Arturio went in and waited in the hallway. He could hear someone coming down the stairs.

What’s the answer? You could describe the maid, as I’ve done above, and go on to develop her as a minor character, or you could accept that sometimes it’s okay to write a bland, functional sentence like ‘The maid opened the door’ – if that’s your idea of a bland sentence.

But context is everything, and sometimes you might want that hole which the passive can give. Imagine Arturio is being forced at gunpoint to go into the mansion, and he doesn’t know who or what lies in wait inside.

Arturio felt the barrel of a gun digging into his lower back as he stood in front of the mansion. The front door was opened – by whom, Arturio couldn’t see. ‘In,’ ordered the guy behind him with the gun.

In that case, the fact that it’s not clear who opens the door adds to the tension and gives the reader the feeling that he or she is really seeing the scene unfold from Arturio’s perspective. In terms of POV, this scene is written using third-person close, and use of the passive helps create narrative intimacy with our viewpoint character, Arturio. Contrast that passage with the following:

Arturio felt the barrel of a gun digging into his lower back as he stood in front of the mansion. A six-foot, 250-pound gorilla with ‘Hate’ written across the knuckles of both hands opened the door.

In that instance, I’ve created a feeling of menace by describing the thug as physically large and by suggesting he’s aggressive. But would Arturio really notice the thuggish guy’s tattoos and evaluate his height and weight during the second in which the gorilla opens the door? It seems unlikely, and it reads like that information is instead coming directly to the reader from the narrator. We’ve lost the feeling that we’re seeing the scene unfold through Arturio’s eyes.

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Speech Tag Specifics

Have you decided whether to give the verb first or the name first in speech tags? And what about their position? Should they always go after a line of dialogue, or is there something to gain by placing them elsewhere? Here, I discuss these subjects, getting some input from thriller-writing royalty in the shape of the great Tess Gerritsen

Be Your Own Copy Editor #9

When you write speech tags in your novel, do you put a character’s name first, then give the verb, or do you give the verb first, then a name? Here’s an example of the name-first style to make it clear what I’m talking about:

‘What we’re gonna do is break into Paris Hilton’s mansion and kidnap Tinkerbell, her chihuahua,’ Jez said.

Here, the verb comes first:

‘No, man,’ said Reginald. ‘Bad plan. We should wait till the maid be walking that bling-encrusted rat out on the street, then go scoop it up.’

Tinkerbell and Paris Hilton 2Maybe you haven’t actually considered the order in which you give the name and verb in your speech tags. I say that because a fair number of authors whose work I copy-edit haven’t thought the issue through and mix the two styles without realising they’re doing it. Sometimes they write ‘Character X said’, and sometimes ‘said Character X’. Yet the issue deserves attention, because each of the two approaches produces a different effect.

In their classic book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Renni Browne and Dave King describe the verb-first style as having ‘a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavour . . . After all, “said he” fell out of favour sometime during the Taft administration.’ They do have something of a point. (Note to fellow Brits: Taft was president of the United States from 1909 to 1913.) Writers of contemporary genre fiction usually opt to give the name first – ‘Jez said’ and so on – and advocates of this style include the late, great Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Lee Child. This way of ordering speech tags has a tougher edge to it than the verb-first option, and it’s particularly suited to streetwise crime fiction. I would say it’s pretty much the convention in genre fiction in general, in fact. However, Browne and King are stretching their point when they talk about ‘said he’ and President Taft, since no writer I’ve ever come across who puts the verb first when using a name also puts the verb first when using a pronoun. Instead, when a pronoun is used it always goes first, as in the following passage.

Jez looked out the window of the diner and scanned fifty yards of sidewalk Paris Hilton’s chihuahua passed along each day. ‘There’s one big problem with your plan,’ he said. ‘And that big problem weighs two hundred forty pounds and got a concealed-carry permit.’

Which brings me to another way of ordering speech tags – one I’m calling the Tess Gerritsen approach. What the thriller writer Tess Gerritsen does is mix the noun-first and verb-first styles in a consistent and logical way. If she’s using a character’s name, 99 per cent of the time she gives the verb first, but if she’s using a pronoun, she puts the pronoun first. Let’s look at that approach in action.

Reginald stopped eating his chicken burger for a moment and frowned. ‘The chihuahua got a bodyguard?’ he said.

‘A Muay Thai instructor they call Stone Foot,’ said Jez, nodding.

I don’t detect a first-grade-reader flavour there.

When I noticed Tess Gerritsen does something different from most authors with her speech tags, I sent her an email asking her about her approach. Now, Tess Gerritsen writes at more or less the pace of a novel a year, she has sold over 25 million books, and her crime-fiction series has been adapted into a highly popular TV series called Rizzoli & Isles, which is going to run for a fifth season in 2014. What I’m building up to saying here is that though I sent Tess Gerritsen an email, I didn’t expect her to actually reply. Yet she very kindly did, saying she wasn’t aware she has a system for speech tags. She also talked about her approach to them in general.

‘My general philosophy is to use as few of them as possible, only for clarity, and make the dialogue itself do most of the work,’ she said. ‘But sometimes you just need to identify who is talking, and my favourite word is, simply, said at the end of the sentence. It’s unobtrusive and gets the job done. However, that gets really repetitive after a while  (“he said”,  “she said”,  “he said”,  “she said”). So, just to inject a change in rhythm, I’ll sometimes move the tag to the beginning of the sentence.’

Avoiding repetition and getting the rhythm right are clearly important considerations for Tess Gerritsen (I’ll talk about how she therefore varies the position of the tag in a moment). Since she restricts herself to using said as her speech-tag verb most of the time, by placing said before characters’ names but after pronouns, she has found a way to avoid hitting the reader with said after names and pronouns again and again. Instead of, say, writing a sequence like ‘Jez said,’ ‘Reginald said,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, she would write ‘said Jez, ‘said Reginald,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

If you’re a writer who hasn’t thought through how to order verbs and nouns in speech tags at all, it’s a good idea to give the subject some consideration when you self-edit your manuscript and adopt a well-thought-out and consistent approach that suits your style and the kind of novel you’re writing. You might want to check on what approach authors who influence you take, too. Whatever style you decide to use, remember to align your thought tags – the tags you use with inner monologue, if you use them – so they follow the same pattern as the speech-tag one. For example, if you opt to give the name or pronoun first in all cases, you should write thought tags like the one in the passage that follows:

Jez took out his smartphone and looked at photos of Tinkerbell’s crib on Paris Hilton’s Twitter feed. That mutt got a better home than I got, he thought.

Let’s now look at the topic of the positioning of speech tags, which Tess Gerritsen talks about, saying she sometimes likes to put the tag before a line of dialogue to change the rhythm. Here are the three options, starting with tag first:

Reginald said, ‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’

‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money,’ Reginald said, ‘we gonna mail her a paw?’

‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’ Reginald said.

An advantage of the first style is it tells the reader who’s speaking straightaway. A disadvantage is that, since the speech tag comes before the line of dialogue, the tag isn’t as discreet as it could be, and it takes some of the limelight away from what the character says. The second style is interesting in that the speech tag acts as a brief interruption, creating a beat and thereby spotlighting what comes after it. The line of dialogue I’ve used in my examples has a punchy second clause, and by positioning the speech tag just before that clause, creating a pause, it’s given just a little bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have.

The advantage of the third style is that the line of dialogue is given in a fluid flourish and takes centre stage. The disadvantage is that the speech tag is there to tell the reader who’s speaking, and placing the tag after the line of dialogue delays the delivery of that important information. On the other hand, the reader usually has a good idea who’s speaking, often because what’s being said and the way it’s being said make that obvious, or because characters are conversing in a clear pattern – for example, Jez says something, then Reginald says something, and then Jez speaks, and so on. But that’s not always the case, and sometimes, when using the third style, there’s a risk the reader won’t be absolutely sure who’s speaking till after he or she has read the actual dialogue, which is not good. Also, if you use a particular verb because you want to indicate how a line is said (shouted, whispered, etc.), the third style isn’t particularly satisfactory, because the reader will read the line and only afterwards discover that he or she was supposed to imagine it shouted or whispered or whatever.

By far the most common style, of course, is the third, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which either of the first two styles is used exclusively. Some writers opt to use the third style most of the time and mix in a few examples of either the first (Tess Gerritsen, for example) or the second, or both (Elmore Leonard liked to do this) to change the rhythm. If you’re a writer who always uses style number three, you might want to consider using the other two styles as well for the same reason.

Self-Editing Checklist

  1. Look through your manuscript to see if you’ve adopted a consistent and logical approach to the order in which you use verbs and nouns in speech tags and thought tags. If you find you haven’t, think the matter through and decide on a style. You might want to read novels by your favourite authors for inspiration. The usual style in genre fiction is to give the name or pronoun first in all cases. The Tess Gerritsen approach is well worth considering, too.
  2. If you always place your speech tags after lines of dialogue, think about using the other two positions illustrated in the examples above to vary the rhythm.

So, this blog has been a long time coming – was my last one really six months ago? Oh dear. I promise to try to up my blog rate from a pitiful twice a year to once a month.

Verbs for Carrying Dialogue: “Said” Versus the Rest

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

Dialogue picture blogIt’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?

Ever seen someone gasp what they're saying?

Ever seen someone gasp what they’re saying?

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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