Thursday, October 19, 2017

Then She Said...


Since mid-September, I, Donis, have been facilitating a creative writing workshop for emeritus professors at Arizona State University. This is the second time I’ve done this workshop, and it’s been an eye-opener for me. Professors know all about the rules of grammar and spelling and the like, but people who have spent their lives writing scientific treatises and keeping a professional, unbiased distance from the reader have a hard time letting go and putting action and emotion into their writing. Not to say that they don’t have some clever story ideas! Wrangling students for thirty years will give you plenty of material.

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing effective ways to write dialog. Hemingway said that dialog is not real speech, it’s the illusion of real speech. I’m sure, Dear Reader, that you’ve read Elmore Leonard’s admonitions that one should try to never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue, or that one should never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

On his website, Tim Hallinan suggests that instead, the writer “use body language: Dialogue broken up by description of what characters are doing provides context and also projects an image. When someone other than our protagonist is speaking in a scene, what is our protagonist doing? Are her hands at rest? Does she listen intently? Does she squirm in the chair. Drum her fingers? Twist her hair? We convey a lot without saying a word.”

I like that idea.

For instance:
"Nonsense," Martha interjected, is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but if I were a fly on the wall, I might see what Martha is doing when she says this. One might try something like, Martha straightened, indignant. “Nonsense."

Rather than "Question?" Beth offered, try, Beth held up a finger (or leaned forward, or tapped the table). “Question?"

And rather than "Okay, Beth. Ask it," Joel replied, consider having Joe sigh, roll his eyes, flop back in his chair, then, "Okay, Beth. Ask it."

You can come up with better examples, but you get the picture.

Of course the "rules" are really only suggestions.

As far as the current popular idea in publishing of only using "said"...I use "noted" and "agreed" and "asked" and the like plenty of times myself. But I do think that the take-away points are: 1) don't use descriptors that draw attention to themselves, like, "he asservated", because that puts the author in the picture, and 2) if you can describe the situation, body language, etc., in lieu of a dialog tag, that's the best way to let the reader see what's going on and draw her own conclusions rather than having the author tell her.

1 comment:

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

It's always helpful to be reminded of the basics, thanks :)