The Said, Said Story

I use “said” too often when writing dialog. Or I don’t. There is a bit of conflict on this subject. The factions at war over this issue have strong opinions. Not wanting to be a middle of the road kind of guy, I will state up front that I think they are all wrong. Before we argue, I will use the same dialog and try to illustrate each of the methods advised.

Case 1 – He said, She said.

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

Dick said, “No, thank you.”

Jane said, “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot said, “Woof.”

Dick said, “I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane said, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick said, “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot said, “Woof.”

He Said, She Said, is clearly simple, but bad. It is repetitious. Having the word “said” at the front of every sentence is a bit sing song and irritating. The proponents of it will tell you that the word “said” will just disappear when read. This sadly is only half true, and not true with a lot of readers. In any case, it is repetitious and banal.

Case 2 – Purple Prose

Dick smiled and gestured to a seat as he and Jane sat at the table. Spot eyed them both carefully as he poured them tea.

Spot gently said, “Woof.”

Dick said with a commanding voice, “No, thank you.”

Jane happily said, “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot obediently said, “Woof.”

Dick sounded conceited as he said, “I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane frowned as she said, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick scoffed and said, “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot said with a gleam in his eyes, “Woof.”

Purple Prose, is a bit richer, but it is too much richer. The lovers of purple prose will heap it on at every opportunity. The haters say never ever use any of it. Putting it on a particular character can be humorous or it could underscore the storytellers feeling towards the character. For example, If I tell a story and every time I mention a fellow, I say that he does something clumsily or elegantly, while leaving all such embellishments out on the rest of the characters, I may be revealing something about my own feelings.

Case 3 – Indicative Action

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot finished pouring Dick’s tea, “Woof.”

Dick put his hand over his cup. “No, thank you.”

Jane gestured. “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into Jane’s tea. “Woof.”

Dick leaned towards Jane.“I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane frowned, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick leaned back confidently. “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot backed up out of reach of Dick and Jane. “Woof.”

Indicative Action works, but it is too busy. The constant action in a scene without dramatic action distracts from the simple conversation. When it makes sense to use it, it is a delight. The writers that make up action to make it work are often adding motions that distract from instead of building a scene. If the man with an axe keeps sharpening it as he talks, it can add to the mood or emphasize a quirk. If a man just sharpens an axe to give him an action, so the writer can avoid the word “said,” it can easily distract and ruin the scene.

There are other issues with Indicative Action. As an example I give you the following line:

“I often say things unrelated to what I am doing.” Jim picks up the dog, “What are you doing with all of these dogs?”

The horrible line above works as a written line. Out loud, you will need to use the cranky voice for Jim or no one will know if he said the first part, second part or both parts.

Case 4 – Minimalist

Dick and Jane sat at Dick’s table as Spot poured them tea.

“Woof.”

“No, thank you.”

“Two lumps, no cream.”

“Woof.”

“I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

“I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

“Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

“Woof.”

Minimalist is okay if we don’t really need to know who said what. It is fast and simple. It can slow the reading down as the reader tries to figure out who said what. It is okay for a bit, but when read out loud, it often becomes even worse. The example isn’t good even though a reader can figure out most of the meaningful parts in the exchange above.

Case 5 – Variation

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

Dick answered, “No, thank you.”

Jane replied, “Two lumps, no cream.”

Spot barked, “Woof.”

Dick announced, “I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

Jane responded, “I don’t think it worked. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

Dick proclaimed, “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

Spot muttered, “Woof.”

Variation mostly works, but it starts to get silly towards the end. As you use more rare or archaic words, it becomes laughable. There are places where it can be good for a laugh. Sometimes prose can be made into poetry by using something other than the basic “said.”

Case 6 – Translocation

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

“No, thank you,” Dick said.

“Two lumps,” Jane said, “no cream.”

Spot said, “Woof.”

“I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray,” Dick said.

“I don’t think it worked,” Jane said. “If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

“Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life,” Dick said.

Spot said, “Woof.”

Translocation is a great way to avoid sing-song prose. It is also a great way to add confusion.

If you don’t put the “he said,” at the front of the sentence, you may introduce confusion when your work is read out loud. In the example above, there is a part that could lead to confusion when read out loud. Out loud, without using voices, Dick or Jane could have said the words, “Would he be serving you tea right now?” or “Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble.” The audience has no good way to know. When the indication is at the end of a sentence, it also means the reader has to get to the end before knowing what internal voice to place on the words. This can interrupt flow.

Case 7 – Naming Names

Dick and Jane sat at the table as Spot poured them tea.

Spot said, “Woof.”

“No, thank you, Spot. How about you, Jane?”

“Two lumps, Spot. No cream.”

“Woof.”

“Jane, I invited you over to see the result of my intelligence ray.”

“I don’t think it worked, Dick. If it really worked, would Spot have become your servant? Would he be serving you tea right now?”

“Jane, Spot likes to have a roof over his head and regular kibble. I think he understands his position in life.”

“Woof.”

Naming Names is obviously overused here. It is a good method, but it should flow naturally and it should only be used as an artifice when there are no other good options for indicating who said what. There are charismatic people who use your name constantly, so it can be used as a character trait for a particular character. This method will blow up quickly if you use it for a character in every story you write, so pick the book you are putting it in carefully.

 

What to Do

My own opinion is that a writer should use all of the above methods. By including them all in your box of tricks, you allow yourself the most options. Writing is expression, rules that say, “Never,” are limits to expression. Rules can help you communicate. Rules can help you to avoid pitfalls. Rules are, however, blind limits. They don’t create. If the rules were being followed, rock and roll would not exist.

To help with the above methods, here is a simple and fairly terse guide. If you can figure it out, use it. Otherwise, just do the best you can.

If one character says more than one sentence, the next character’s indication must be at the beginning of the line. Otherwise, confusion can result especially if your work is read out loud.

Position of “said” should alternate between front and middle. If a phrase is short, then the end is acceptable. If a dialog has more than one sentence, the next “said” must be at the front.

Action to indicate speech is really good, but only if appropriate.

Asking questions makes for better conversation. The word “ask” breaks the “I say, he says,” pattern all by itself. It also allows the word “answer” to be used.

Prose must flow. Unless the moment calls for a type of discord or audience internal response, it must not kick the reader out of the reading trance.

Short List of Acceptable Words

Intersperse these as indications of speech:

say, says, ask, asks, answer, reply, respond, tell, call, shout.

Use these a bit less often:

clear my throat, chuckle and say, laugh and say.

Some will take issue if you just use the word chuckle or laugh as an indication of speech. I figure that this means I laugh before responding, but it is best to avoid giving pedantic people too much ammunition. This is a recent enough rule, but the pedantic are correct that these may be over used. “Jim laughs and says,” is less likely to draw criticism than “Jim Laughs,” I think they mean the same thing, but it could be taken as Jim laughing as he talks. In my youth I used to swallow air and burp out complete sentences, so “Bob burped,” could be a true indication of speech. While this is not used much, I think it could be overused pretty quickly.

 

As a final note, the end of this scene writes itself:

Dick and Jane gasp and keel over. Spot picks up the intelligence ray and goes out through the dog door. Man’s final battle is about to begin.

Writing Advice from a Squirrel

The squirrel says, “You probably want to rethink this. I don’t think this is going to make anyone happy.”

I ask, “Why not? Everyone is going to love talking pets.”

The squirrel says, “I am not a pet, and I suspect I have what, maybe two to eight years to live? Sentience is wasted on me. It’s like I have a terminal condition. Why the hell did you want to make me talk?”

I say, “I’ll get famous and then I will have a platform and be able to sell my book.”

The squirrel says, “That’s the worst reason ever. I can’t begin to tell you how bad that is. First off, I read your book. It sucks. Second, you invented a ray that teaches English to squirrels and you are trying to publish a fantasy romance?”

I say, “Not just squirrels, it should work on any mammal.”

The squirrel asks, “Did you have to make me so smart?”

I reply, “I wasn’t aiming for any particular limits on intelligence. Making sure your vocal chords could handle speech was the hard part. Organizing brains was easy in comparison.”

The squirrel says, “Great, now I want to go run in traffic. Honestly, try and use it on yourself, you might write better.”

I think about it and put the talk ray to my head. It shouldn’t hurt anything. I pull the trigger and pick up my book.

I pitch it into the woods. “You’re right, squirrel. My writing sucks.”

How to Avoid the Oxford Comma.

How to avoid the Oxford Comma. (With apologies to Tom Hanks.)

We get it, the Oxford comma is a useful way to make a sentence more clear. Written English has a few issues that make it different from spoken English. For example, when you say “Oxford comma” out loud you don’t capitalize any of it. We also don’t say the word “comma” much because it sounds like we are using “air quotes.” Talking about the Oxford comma sounds like I am pretentious and don’t know how to use a comma. It also sounds like I am talking about someone I am calling, “The Oxford.” Worse, I am not sure if capitalizing the word comma in the title is correct even though it is the noun. Sometimes I wonder if we should give up on English and go back to cuneiform.

The sentence, “I went out with my parents, Godzilla and Tom Hanks.” leaves the possibility that Godzilla and Tom Hanks are not my parents. If I wanted to say that with the same sentence I would need to put a comma after the name Godzilla. That would be the Oxford comma.

To avoid the confusion entirely, you need to write a bit better. Here is an example:

I went out with Godzilla, who is my mother, and my father who is Tom Hanks.

That is much more clear. It is still pretty bad. It is much better if you show it with words instead of just telling it. Here is an example of this:

My new girlfriend points up and screams, “It’s Godzilla!”

I tell her, “Relax, that’s my mother.”

“But isn’t your father Tom Hanks?”

I say, “Yes, true love knows no boundaries.”

My girlfriend says, “Then how, I mean how did–”

I say, “They haven’t said anything. I think they are scared that they might hurt my feelings. Just between you and me, I think I am adopted.”

She asks, “So Godzilla is a girl?”

I shrug. I don’t say anything since I try to respect my parents’ sense of privacy. My mother, Godzilla, prefers me to say “mother” and hates the term, “life partner.” I don’t want to upset Godzilla so I am not comfortable with going much further with this conversation.

The Mysterious Stranger

Today, while looking for pearls of wisdom I found Michael Levin, the author of “Books are my Babies.”

Honestly, he is brilliant. Well worth following. In this case I disagree with him so completely that I am doing the opposite of his advice in this video. I am writing about the stranger that suddenly showed up and gave me needed advice.

Out of respect for his wishes, I will not point to any of his other videos. He is a mysterious stranger that suddenly showed up and gave me advice. Apart from this particular video, all of the others that I have seen so far have given me instant free and wonderful insight. You will have to search for that wisdom on your own, Grasshopper. I am told that it would be bad writing for me to hand you wisdom too easily. To me this rule seems pretty irritating.

Michael Levin advises you to avoid putting the stranger who provides advice in your story. He is right, it is overused. It is how things happen in real life. We don’t invent everything. Giving a character a problem that needs more than just himself to solve is giving a character a good problem.

I think that some of Michael Levin’s advice may help me get published. If I do really well, I will consider myself in debt to him the tune of one trip to Majorca. He is really, really smart, but I don’t think that his advice is going to solve all of my issues between here and my desired destination.

Even with simple issues, I disagree with Michael Levin on the grounds that all things are new again. I also disagree on the grounds that good writing is above such limits. Unless you manage the magical mysterious advice of a giving stranger well, it is going to be trite. It is also a weak shortcut. Well done, Yoda.

Obi-Wan and the Fairy Godmother are icons that should not be left out. If needed, make things a bit hard. At the very least, have the mystical stranger live in a swamp on a remote planet and have him hit your character with a stick repeatedly. In stories we like characters to have to pay a price for wisdom.

I can’t tell you how many fairytales, myths, legends and great authors have mysterious strangers appear and help the character. Don’t listen to this advice and leave the Fairy Godmother out of Cinderella. Let’s not ignore the writing of Dickens. His stories consist of brutal events punctuated by encounters with odd strangers with wisdom and assistance. If you dared to  edit J.K. Rowling using this rule, you would be hunted down by an angry horde carrying long sharp sticks. You just eliminated half of the good characters. Hagrid kicked the door down so he could tell Harry what Harry needed to know.

As a writer, it is wise to examine the limits that people advise you to take on. Don’t follow the advice. Instead, examine your work and make sure that you are doing it well. We all have limitations. A lot of the advice people give you is good. If you follow all of it, you might as well give up writing.

Bob

Never Give Up Your Dreams

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One wannabe author to another, I beg you to never give up your dreams. The common advice these days is to avoid dreams in your stories. I fear that editors and agents have read that advice and will now ignore stories that start with or contain dreams. I fear the next “Apocalypse Now” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” will be pushed aside and condemned to the reject pile. It is true that dreams handled poorly are horrid wastes of a reader’s time. Kind of like those long bits of poetry that really don’t move the story along or the science fiction lecture about how the engines work. There is a reason that there is no manual of style for writing. One hack’s rules for what to avoid may be what propels another to greatness. Well done, poetry, explanations and dreams are wonderful. Back to the subject of leaving out dreams. Without dreams, the story of Joseph becomes a really sad one and the Bible only has one book. The book of Daniel doesn’t really work either. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” falls apart at the title page. Without dreams, one of the greatest books of all time, The Zhuangzi, is left in shreds.

Book Seven Was Just Started.

I have been a serious about my writing and not my blogging. Book Five and Six are finished but they have not been edited. I am working on book seven. I am blazing away despite being a bit sad. The outline that blew up from what I thought was going to be a single seventy thousand word book is now approaching the end. There is perhaps more that I could say, but I fear that once I let go of these characters they will fade from my mind. They will still be dear friends, but they won’t be running off doing their own thing and showing little respect to the outline anymore.

There are other characters and other stories. For the next book I will try to keep my outline much simpler so the story does not expand as much as this story did. Soon I must devote myself to editing, making covers and promoting the words I have written.

Finished Cover Art for All Seven Books

Headgames I Cover

Headgames II Cover

Headgames III Cover

Headgames IV Cover

Headgames V Cover

Headgames VI Cover

Headgames VII Cover

 


I am getting very close to finishing the last book of this series. I am going to miss these characters. To put off the writing of the last half of the seventh book, I went ahead and spent time on the graphics. I also need to compile the rest of the quotes for the beginning of the chapters and do four additional graphics. Then I suppose I won’t have any excuses. The plot is finished. The content has been lain out. It is time for me to finish this work.

I have had these characters buzzing around in my head ignoring my outlines and going above expectations for so long, I think I will be a bit lonely when they are gone.

Not for long though. I have other books to write and other characters to befriend.

Bob

Hearts in Wood favicon

Headgames I Stone Cover

Headgames II Stone Cover

Headgames III Stone Cover

Headgames IV Stone image

Headgames V Stone Cover

Headgames VI Stone Cover

Headgames VII Stone Cover