“Break the Rules,” she said.

Image by Brent Payne via Creative Commons

Image by Brent Payne via Creative Commons

I was talking to a friend yesterday about the rules of writing. Specifically, the rule regarding dialogue and “s/he said”. Apparently, writers are no longer supposed to use adverbs here, we’re supposed to stick firmly to “s/he said”, perhaps the occasional “asked”. Apparently readers don’t want any clues as to how the speaker is speaking.

This isn’t a rule I’ve made up, it’s one I’ve seen repeated many times. For example:

Points 3 and 4 here: Elmore Leonard’s Rules

Point 4 here: Stephen King’s Rules

Point 1 on this list: Common Writing Mistakes

My friend baulked at this. “That’s ridiculous!” she said. (Do you see what I did there?) Now maybe she and I are freaks, relics of a bygone era when writers wrote descriptively and readers lapped up their prose. When I read I don’t especially want to use my imagination all that much, actually. I want the writer to transport me to another place, I want escapism. I want them to paint a world so vivid I can’t help but go with them. I want to be shown what a character looks like, how they interact with the world around them, and yes, how they speak.

When a protagonist says “I need you”, does she whisper seductively, or scream in panic? “Said” is bland, flat, emotionless. “Said” saps the energy out of dialogue utterly. Dear writers, if you’re anything like me, and I know you are, you’ve imagined that scene so many times and so clearly that it feels like a real memory. You know how she said it, you feel how fast her heart is pounding, whatever the reason, so take me there with you. Let me feel it too.

Apparently readers today just want fast paced, no frills, no imagination. Maybe it’s assumed they want to do all of the imagining for themselves, but then, wouldn’t they all be writers? I write to express my creativity. I read to let go and jump in. But I don’t buy it. I don’t think all readers have such short attention spans that they can’t handle the odd “he snapped”. I think that assuming so is detrimental to readers and writers everywhere. But even if attention span is an issue, surely it’s quicker to show the reader how a person is speaking, rather than leaving them wondering and having to pause for a moment to figure it out for themselves. Readers, what do you think? Think of your favourite book from when you were growing up. I bet it had a few whispers, screams, croaks and so on. Did you mind then? Do you mind now? Do you want your literature to read like someone’s Twitter feed?

I take no pleasure in this, as he is one of my all time favourite authors, but one of those lists I linked to up there was written by the legend, Stephen King. I have in front of me one of his epic tomes, The Stand. In the first few pages people speak “sourly”, “mildly”, and get this “weightily from the depths of his ninth-grade education”. These descriptions show us who these characters are. If they merely “said” what they had to say we would be missing these clues into their personalities and backgrounds.

I think what the experts mean when they say “just use said”, is “don’t overdo it”. Use “said” most of the time and then colour the occasional piece of dialogue with some description to keep the reader with you. They can fill in some of the blanks, but don’t leave them plodding along behind you on a string of “he said”, “she said”s. Take them into the world you’re creating, invite them in with some easy to digest descriptions and clues.

She said.

I love to hear from you, so tell me what you think in the comments below. Do you like some description with your dialogue as a reader? What rules do you follow as a writer and which do you throw out?

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3 responses

  1. I think I’m on your team. The “s/he said” rule I assume was a reaction to really egregious overly descriptive dialog. But I think dropping it all out is (cliche-alert) throwing out the bathwater with that noisy baby. We need that bathwater for the next smelly baby! (Maybe I’m not using that phrase right.)

    There’s a big difference between “he said” and “he whispered” and “he shrieked” and “he mumbled” and I don’t want to lose that.

    (Look at me, all pretending that I’m a writer.)

    This reminds me of my experience as a reader. Before we became parents, my wife and I decided to start reading the Harry Potter books to each other, aloud. Because all of our friends with young children could not shut up about how fun the books were to read to their kids. So my wife and I would take turns reading a chapter aloud to each other, alternating each night.

    When you are reading in your head, it’s easy to apply a tone and even re-remember dialog that had gone on before with a tone re-applied. You know, if there’s lot of “saids” and it become clear that the people are whispering through some other context, the dialog read previously adjusts.

    But if you are reading that out loud, you establish a tone. A tone that might not fit what’s going on by later context if the dialog was presented without hints.

    So I appreciate getting the hints, especially for reading out loud.

    “So that’s where I stand,” Pat said.
    Hmmm, I don’t like that.
    “So that’s where I stand, ” Pat insisted.

    I like that better. Which probably invalidates your argument. I’m no writing expert, yo.

    21/11/2015 at 3:03 pm

    • It’s what readers think that really matters! I’m glad to know it’s not just me who thinks along these lines.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

      25/11/2015 at 10:17 pm

      • No problem, I appreciated your topic and reasoning

        26/11/2015 at 2:37 am

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