Craft

He Said. She Said.

A blog reader left an excellent comment on a post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader, rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

Another good reason to use “said” is as a break from descriptive and action tags, adding variety and rhythm to your prose. Also consider that each phrase a character utters can’t realistically be accompanied by an action. Think about it. When you are carrying on a conversation, do you make a movement before or after each thought? Does your conversation partner? Action tags are used as descriptors, to further character development, and to enhance the story. But “said” can be an effective way to keep your story moving.

When in doubt, read your words aloud and listen to the rhythm. Hearing your story will help you learn when “said” is your best friend.

[Image above clipped from the cover of Jay & Laura Laffoon’s book He Said. She Said.]

 

Leave a Comment

Use Your Thesaurus and Dictionary Correctly

Today we look at how one writer uses his thesaurus and dictionary in a fascinating way. The following is a five-minute video from Martin Amis, one of Britain’s well-known literary novelists and essayists. I recommend clicking the “cc” close-captioned on the bottom next to the settings button. That way you …

Read More

Letting Go of Your Babies

One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.

My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.

Read More

Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

Read More

Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several so in almost every case, omit it. Same can be said for tags such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed, trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

Read More

C.S. Lewis on Writing

by Steve Laube

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
Read More

It’s All About the Plot

Last week we discussed characters portrayed in a sympathetic light. Another type of plot relies less on the character being sympathetic, but the reader is engaged because the plot itself is intriguing enough to keep reading. For instance, books can: Solve a murder. Some authors make plenty of money with …

Read More

Writing Sympathetic Characters

Have you ever stopped reading a novel because you didn’t like or weren’t interested in the characters or you couldn’t muster enough caring about them to stick with them for 300 pages? Here are a few tips to try to keep this reaction from happening to your readers: 1. Portray …

Read More

Five Words to Strike from Your Fiction

Maybe you’ve heard of James A. Michener. He wrote some books. And he once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Rewriting is the better part of writing, and deleting words (or “killing all your little darlings,” as Faulkner put it) is a key part …

Read More