Monday, December 8, 2014

Plain Talk on Using Said

Let’s talk about dialog in writing.  More to the point, let’s talk about how to skillfully use (or not use) the word ‘said’.

I started reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing, looking for sage pearls of wisdom.  Perhaps it was the ADD, or perhaps it was impatience on my part, but I got half-way through the book and decided that the best way to study Stephen King was to read Stephen king.  The one pearl of wisdom that stuck with me (a commandment which King admitted to breaking again and again) was that when writing dialogue, you should always use ‘said’ as your speech tag.

“It’s time to go,” Julie said.

This rule is pretty much Gospel canon throughout the writing community, and it’s sound advice.

The problem is, nearly all published authors ignore this rule from time to time.  So what gives?

Well, I’ve done research on the topic, and I think I’ve uncovered the secret.  What I’ve come up with are eight rules for writing dialog that won’t make you sound like a rank beginner.

Rule #1
Always use said. 

There is a time and a place for creativity, but this is not one of them.  Please.  If you feel that urge to have your character opine, articulate, relate, tell, or vocalize—just stop.  Stand up, take a breath, then count to ten.  Now sit back down and type, ‘said’.
Ok, that’s out of the way.

Rule #2
When a character asks a question, you can (and probably should) use ‘asked’ instead of ‘said’.

Don’t use any other synonym.  This includes queried, inquired, requested, interrogated, etc.  Again, there is a time and a place for creativity; this is not it, either.
Here is an example:

“What time is it?” John asked.

Very good. 

Rule #3
When answering a question, you may use one of the following: said, answered, replied, or responded. 

You have a little bit of freedom here, but don’t be tempted to go overboard.  Stick to these four verbs, and you’ll be safe.

“It’s time to go,” Julie said.
“What time is it?” John asked.
“Nearly half past ten,” Julie answered.  “My mother is waiting up.  She’s gonna kill me.”

See how that just rolls off the page? 
Now for a little creativity.  If you’re tired of an endless page full of ‘he said’, and ‘she said’, try this next rule.

Rule #4
If you put a short action sentence before a line of dialogue, you can omit the speech tag altogether.  The sentence should mention the character who is speaking, and it should include an action that the character does.

Ok, this one is going to take an example. 

John closed his math textbook and scooped his notes into a pile.  “Is it that late?  I completely lost track of time.”

You can also put the action sentence between two lines of dialogue by the same character.

“I’ll send a text.”  Julie fished her phone out of her backpack and started punching keys on the screen.  “She won’t flip out if she thinks I’m on my way.”

This one can get a little awkward, and it might take some practice to get it right.  Try to keep the subject for both lines of dialogue the same.  In the previous the example, both dialogue lines refer to Julie’s mother: “I’ll send her a text,” and “She won’t flip out…”  

Rule #5
You almost never need an adverb after said. 

I said almost never, because as a general rule you should avoid it like the plague.  If you’ve done your job well as a writer, the reader should hear your adverb in the character’s voice.   Consider this bad example:

“Julie hasn’t called, and it’s after ten,” Martha said worriedly.

Just reading this sentence you know that Martha is worried.  The reader already gets it, so you don’t need to spell it out for them further.  In this case you ought to fall back to Rule #1.

Here is an example of when an adverb does work:

Mary sidled into the crowded lecture hall and eased into the seat beside her friend.
Jenna covered her mouth with her hand and leaned close.  “Rough morning?”
“My alarm didn’t go off.  I ran here as fast as I could,” Martha answered quietly.

In this case, if I omitted the adverb ‘quietly’, the reader would be left to wonder if Martha is speaking in a normal loud voice, or if she is whispering.  

Again, the key is to try Rule #1 first, and read sentence aloud without the adverb.  If ‘said’ still feels a little out of tune then you can add the adverb.

That said, you can still avoid the adverb if you apply Rule #6.

Rule #6
In situations where a character is not speaking with a normal voice (e.g., strong emotion, loud volume, or whispering), you may use any verb that can be construed as a vocal utterance.

‘Said’ implies that the character is speaking in a normal conversational tone, at a normal conversational volume. 

What happens if the character is yelling?  Or whispering?

Here is where things can get a little creative—but be conservative.  What you’re looking for is a snug fit.  If you start getting too colorful the effect becomes noticeable and your dialog will start to sound cheesy.

Some examples are in order.  A good place to look for where you might apply this rule would be whenever a character uses an exclamation point. 

“Over here!” john said.

I’ve followed Rule #1 like you should always try to do, but in this case it just doesn’t fit.  John is clearly not using his inside voice. 

Let’s try something more creative.

“Over here!” john called.
“Over here!” john hollered.

Rule #6 can be applied in other ways.  Consider a situation where John is responding sarcastically, or if John is very angry.

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John growled.

The key is to look for moments when the scene is emotionally tense, or situationally ironic.
Use this rule sparingly.  It’s like cooking with celery seed or garlic.  A little bit makes a huge difference, but a little more is way too much.  My rule of thumb is no more than once every page, and save it for the times when the tension in your scene is at its climax.  This isn’t for everyday use. 

Rule #7
As a corollary to rule #6, you must never use a verb that is not a vocal utterance, or would in any way be confusing in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an example:

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John smiled.

Can you see how ‘Smiled’ is not a sound? 

You can fix this sentence two ways.  Either you can apply rule #4:

John smiled.  “I’m having the best day of my life.”

Or you can fall back to rule #1:

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John said with a smile.

Let’s look at another example. 

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John laughed.

Is John speaking, or is he laughing?  You really can’t do both.  In this case, you might use rule #4:

John laughed.  “I’m having the best day of my life.”

Rule #8.
If two (and only two) people are speaking in a quick exchange, you can omit the speech tags altogether.

This works if there are just two characters in the scene.  Any more than that, and the exchange becomes confusing.  Here is an example adapted from Monty Python:

Michael knocked on the office door.
A man called from inside.  “Come in!”
Michael opened the door and stepped inside.  Mr. Barnard sat behind his desk, his hands folded in his lap.
“Is this the right room for an argument?” Michael asked.
Mr. Barnard sat forward.  “I’ve told you once.”
Michael frowned.  “No you haven’t.”
“Yes I have.”
“Just now.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”

Keep in mind that the reader can quickly lose track of which character is speaking, so after five or six lines you might want to add a conversational beat and a speech tag.

Hopes this helps.  If you disagree, feel free to sound off and let me know what you think.

And keep writing!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Making it Quotable

My wife and I were talking about the Star Wars movies the other night, and I made the off-hand comment that no one has ever quoted episodes I, II, or III.

And my next thought was, why?

Well, it might have something to do with Jar-Jar Binks.  It also might have something to do with the fact that all three stories were forgettable.  Do you even remember what the main plot was in Episode I?  (Hint, it had nothing to do with pod-races or Darth Maul)  What about Episode II?  I remember that Episode II had lots of light-saber fights.

So, what is it that makes a book or a movie quotable?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve noticed that all the quotable story lines have four strong elements.

Quotes are always tied to a character with a strong personality and charisma.  When the quote is re-used, it is usually (but not always) delivered with a specific speech inflection as well as an accent (if there is one), and can also be accompanied by a pantomimed action.  Who remembers Ben Stein's deadpan: "Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?"  I've used that one in meetings when a question is met with a lengthy silence.  For another example remember The Princess Bride: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You keeeeeeled my father.  Prepare to die!" 

Iconic moments:
Scenes that are heavy with emotional tension such as irony, fear, anger, frustration, love, etc.  These are moments that capture the essence of life.  Who remembers the first time they accidentally swore in front of their parents?  Anyone who remembers the scene where Ralphy spills the lugnuts while helping his father change the flat tire will instantly identify.

All quotable stories have a strong sense of time and place.  If a story is set in the real world will be stuffed to the gills with contemporary culture-references, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or A Christmas Story.  If it’s set in another time or place it will have a rich sense of presence, like The Princess Bride, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings.

Pithy lines. 
They’re all sound-bites.  They’re very short and to the point, and they’re oddly metaphorical / applicable in other areas of life.  How often have you heard someone get a bump or a scratch and say, “It’s just a flesh-wound!”  Once, when my computer was giving me fits, a co-worker leaned out of his cube and asked, "Having trouble with your droid?"

It is very common for lines to get shortened, or to become mis-quoted.  For instance, Dirty Harry never said, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”  But that’s what everyone quotes.  The actual line of dialog was much, much, much longer:

Uh uh. I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

Exercise for the reader

Ok, so here’s some famous movies that are highly quotable.  As you read through these, ask yourself three questions:

  1. who is speaking? What is noteworthy about that character's personality?
  2. What is the setting for this story?
  3. What is the moment / scene where this quote was spoken?  What was going on, and what was the focus of conflict in that very moment?
  4. What about this situation and this line was metaphorical for life?  HINT: Think about how you’ve heard people apply this quote.

Monty Python

  1. “What is the average air-speed of an un-laden swallow?”
  2. “It’s just a flesh wound!”
  3. “We are the Knights who say “Ni!””
  4. “This is an ex-parrot!”
  5. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!
  6. Spam, spam, spam, spam…

A Christmas Story

  1. You’ll shoot your eye out!
  2. Oh, fuuuuuudge!
  3. “Fra Geee Lay!  That must be Italian!  I think that says Fragile, honey.
  4. I double-dog dare ya!

The Princess Bride

  1. Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die
  2. Inconceivable!!  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  3. Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.
  4. As…you…wish!

William Shakespeare

  1. To be or not to be, that is the question!
  2. O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
  3. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears

Star Wars

  1. May the Force be with you.
  2. Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi.  You’re my only hope.
  3. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
  4. Use the Force, Luke!
  5. No, I am your father.  That’s not true!  That’s impossible!

Lord of the Rings

  1. One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.  One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
  2. You shall not pass!
  3. One does not simply walk into Mordor
  4. My precioussss!
  5. All that is gold does not glitter

Sherlock Holmes

  1. Elementary
  2. The game is afoot!

Ferris Beuler’s Day Off

  1. Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
  2. The question isn't what are we going to do. The question is what aren't we going to do.
  3. Cameron is so tight, that is you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, and twisted, you'd have a diamond.
  4. Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Gone with the Wind

  1. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!
  2. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.
  3. After all, tomorrow is another day!

The Ten Commandments

  1. So let it be written.  So let it be done.
  2. Let my people go!

Star Trek

  1. Set phasers on stun.
  2. He’s dead, Jim.
  3. I’m a doctor, not a ___
  4. I'm giving her all she's got, Captain! 

Star Trek TNG

  1. Engage!
  2. Make it so!
  3. Resistance is Futile
  4. Belay that order!

Napoleon Dynamyte

  1. Sweet!  Lucky!  Yessss!
  2. Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner!
  3. Napoleon, don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I'm training to be a cage fighter.
  4. I see you’re drinking 1%.  Is that ‘cause you think you’re fat?  ‘Cause you’re not.  You could be drinking whole, if you wanted to.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Goblin Accounting Office

The following is a transcript of a recording taken at Aragorn Air Force Reserve station, by Ssgt Joe Robinson, at the Goblin Accounting Office, August 15, 2010. 

[Scraping noises as I slide my recorder across the desk toward the subjects.]
G1:   “Get that thing away from me.”
ME:   “It’s just a recorder.”
G1:   [pause] “What the hell for?”
ME:   “I’m Joe Robinson.  I’m a reporter from the Stars and Stripes.  I called you yesterday.  We’re interviewing participants in the new military de-segregation program.  I cleared all this with Lienutnant Jones and Chief Gurg.”
[long pause]
ME:   “Do you still want to do this interview?”
G1:   [sigh]  Yuh-yuh.  Long as chief know.”
ME:   “Okay, so start off by telling me your name.”
G1:   “Shigrit.”
ME:   “Shigrit?”
SHIGRIT: “You got problem with that?  You make some kind of joke, pink-face?”
ME:   “No, I just want to make sure I’m saying it right.  How do you spell that?”
SHIGRIT: “Like it sounds.  You know how to spell, yuh?”
ME:   “Do you have a last name?”
SHIGRIT: “Shigrit Blood-Vole.”
ME:   “Blood-Vole?  Is that your clan name?”
SHIGRIT: “Yeah.”
ME:   “Ok, tell us about what you do.”
SHIGRIT: “Uuh…this is Goblin Accounting Office.  We keep track of treasury.  Everything you want, from paperclip to stealth drone…it come through us.  All of it.”
ME:   “Sounds interesting.”
SHIGRIT: “Nyeh, nyeh.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is job.  It is good job, but I signed on with military so I pay for college.”
ME:   “But you’re getting job experience.”
SHIGRIT: “Sure, sure.”
ME:   “What kinds of challenges do you face being a goblin in today’s military?”
SHIGRIT: “Uh, you know.”  [snorrt]  “Sorry, I got cold.”  [snooooorrrrt]
ME:   “Would you like a Kleenex?”
SHIGRIT: “What?”
ME:   “To blow your nose?  There’s a box on the desk there.”
SHIGRIT: “Nyeh, don’t worry.”  [snoorrrt-snort]  “I never use those.  What was question?”
ME:   “What kinds of challenges—”
SHIGRIT: “Oh yeah!  Well, you know.  Usual stuff.  Why would goblin go to college?  I get that a lot.  I mean just because you are goblin they expect you to be lazy, cowardly…that sort of thing.  I have dreams, too, you know.”
ME:   “What do you want to study?”
SHIGRIT: [pause] “Goblin stuff.”
ME:   “Goblin stuff?  What’s that?”
SHIGRIT: “It is mind your own damn business, that is what.”
ME:   “Hang on.  The point of this interview was to get to know the goblins.  We’re trying to break down walls, not build them up.”
SHIGRIT:  “Meh.”
ME:   “Do you want to continue?”
SHIGRIT: “Yuh-yuh, as long as chief says.  Beats working.”
ME:   “So what do you want to study in college?”
SHIGRIT: “Why you keep asking that question?  What does college have to do with military?  Ask me question about work.  This work, the work that I do.”
ME:   “I’m just trying to keep it real.  I mean, we’re not all gung-ho, GI Joe, are we?  We all have dreams—aspirations, if you will—outside of military life.”
SHIGRIT: “Ask different question.”
ME:   “Um, okay…”
[a second goblin voice butts in (loud) close to the mic]
G2:   “He wants to study dance!”  [snigger]
SHIGRIT: “Shut it, pig face!” [A chair scrapes across the floor.  Something falls over with a crash.]
G2:   [voice echoes from across the room] “He tell me!  He got drunk last weekend, he tell me!”
SHIGRIT: “Va gala hootu!  I said shut it!”
G2:   [sniggering]
ME:   “Is this true?”
SHIGRIT: “You going to clean that up, fart-eater.  When chief sees that, it is your ass—not mine.”
[Long argument in Goblin-speek between Shigrit and the other goblin.]
ME:   “Shigrit?”
G2:   [Sounds like swearing.]
SHIGRIT: “That’s right, I tell Chief!  Then we see who is laughing.”
ME:   “Shigrit?”
SHIGRIT: “What?”
ME:   “Can we continue?”
SHIGRIT: [sigh] “Yeah.”  [The chair scrapes across the floor again.]
ME:   “Well that’s cool, man.  You’re studying dance, I’m cool with that.  What kind of dance?”
G2:   “Ballet!  Woooo-oooooo!”
SHIGRIT: “You wanna eat your teeth?  Shut it!
G2:   [singing]  “Wooo-ooooo-hooooo.”
ME:   “Are you going to study ballet?”
[long pause]
SHIGRIT: “I tell you something I never tell anybody, eh?  You don’t put this on your web-page-whatever-thing, panyes?”
ME:   “Hey, man, I won’t tell.  Scout’s honor.”
SHIGRIT: “What is that—what is…scout’s honor?”
ME:   “It’s a…it’s just something that we say.  It means that I promise not to tell.”
SHIGRIT: “You better not.  If you tell, I have Chief Gurg come an’ he find you, and he break your kneecaps, panyes?  Both of them!”
ME:   “Sure, I understand.  This is strictly off the record.”  [Scraping sound as I slide the recorder away from the subject.]
SHIGRIT: “I take modern jazz.”
ME:   “That’s awesome.  I have two daugh—er, I know two people who are into that.  I think it’s great stuff.”
G2:   [huffs] “You’re a pyosset.”
SHIGRIT: “Your father is a pyosset, and your mother rides on top.  Shut up, or by Urok I flatten your nose!”
ME:   “Look, if he likes dance I can respect that, whether it’s jazz or ballet or hip-hop.”
SHIGRIT: “Gah!  My friends, they do hip-hop.  Break-dance.  They look like…like cloonz…how you say it?”
ME:   “Clowns?”
SHIGRIT: “Yeah, clowns.  They think they bad-ass.”
ME:   “Well, that’s cool.  If you like modern jazz, I’m cool with that.  Do you plan on becoming a dancer?”
SHIGRIT: “I don’t know.  I take classes, I see where it goes.  Maybe I try out for play, and get part.”
G2:   [sniggering]
ME:   “I know someone who can get you an audition with Tops in Blue, you ever heard of them?”
ME:   “They’re an entertainment showcase sponsored by the Air Force.  They do all kinds of musical numbers, dancing, too.  They tour all over the world.  Would you like that?”
SHIGRIT: “You do that for me?”
ME:   “Sure, man.”
SHIGRIT: “You all right.  You all right.”
G2:   Skeelgah.”
ME:   “Hey, can I ask your friend some questions?”
SHIGRIT: “Pish!  Go right ahead.”
ME:   “Hey, you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
G2:   “Sure, pink-face.  Ask away.”
ME:   “Well, for our readers why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.  Start with your name.”
G2:   “Bugger!”
ME:   “Bugger?”
SHIGRIT: “That is not name.  Don’t listen to him.  He is being rude.”
ME:   “I can call you Bugger if that’s what you want.  You want me to call you Bugger?”
G2:   “My name is Greenskin, pink-face.”
ME:   “Greenskin, that’s better.  So, Greenskin, how do you like the military?  Do you think this new integration program is working?”
G2:   Ack!  Thptptptpht!  That is what I think!”
SHIGRIT: “He has got farts for brains.  Do not listen to him.”
ME:   “Okay, well that’s—” 
[end transcription]