Friday, 12 November 2010

‘Welcome,’ he adumbrated lubriciously (and other rubbish).

I thought I’d played out the rhythm theme but recent experiences with an editor’s suggestions for (I presume) ‘improvements’ to a text forces me to revisit it. These ‘improvements’ also, once again, brought more of Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules’ into focus. First of all, there’s the problem of ‘said’. In ‘rule’ 3 Leonard advises us ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue’ and 4 says ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”’. That’s just the opening sentence of each and I’ll quote more later but, for the moment, let’s try to see (hear) what he means.

If you only have two people talking, it’s not really a problem. You establish the first exchange:
‘Morning, Joe,’ said John.
‘Morning, John,’ said Joe.
Then you can let them chat away without needing to identify the speaker for a while. When there are more than two, however, there could be some confusion, so the word ‘said’ crops up more frequently, and I think that bothered the editor I mentioned so she tried to find substitutes. But that led to some weird effects. I’m making these up now but the examples from the text were similar:

‘Do you really want to learn this?’ his father pondered.
‘Work was awful today,’ she stated.
‘You’d better be ready soon,’ taunted Felicity.
‘Definitely not,’ Harold denied.

In each case, the thing that jumps off the page is the verb. They’re all perfectly good verbs but they’re totally wrong in the context. And the result is that they call attention to themselves and take the focus off the characters and what they’re saying. It’s the characters whose words are important, not this intrusive person who’s not just relating what they say but interpreting it. In other words, with some obvious exceptions (replied, asked, shouted, whispered, etc.) trying to supplant ‘said’ only means that there’s another person clumping about in the text, someone who has nothing to do with the action and who’s getting in the way – and it’s the writer.

The same criticism applies when it comes to adverbs and the interesting thing here is that, once I started noticing the adverbs that the editor had inserted, presumably to reinforce meaning, I began questioning and deleting lots of my own. Adverbs are like stage directions. If a character says something ‘gruffly’, ‘menacingly’ or whatever, it narrows the readers’ choices and options. When the baddy’s words are ‘If you upset me, you’re finished,’ some readers may hear them as a quietly whispered threat, others will prefer to imagine them expressing rage, and yet others may think they work best when spoken in a normal, conversational tone. The minute you attach an adverb, they don’t have that luxury of interpretation.

The full text of Leonard's two rules makes the point more succinctly.

3.. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

But one other thing that came out of my reading of the editor’s revisions; it concerned rhythm but it was such a simple thing that it surprised me a bit. So … which of these lines do you prefer?

‘I’m not sure we’ll get there in time,’ said Bill.
‘I’m not sure we’ll get there in time,’ Bill said.

To my ear, ‘Bill said’ is too strong. It leaves two solid beats at the end of the line which upset the rhythm and, once more, pull the attention away from the actual line of dialogue. One of the advantages of ‘said’ is that it’s short and hardly needs pronouncing, but only when it comes before whoever is doing the saying; when it’s the last word in the sentence it has to be given more weight.

And I suppose this is just the sort of nit-pickery that gives writers a bad name, so I’ll stop whining and, instead, thank my good friend Rosemary Gemmell for giving me what I’ve called ‘The writer’s blog award’. The sentiment on the mug is so familiar. In case you didn’t know, one of Rosemary’s blogs, Reading and Writing, is a mine of information about potential short story markets, publishers accepting submissions and many other links for writers at all stages of development. Have a look here and you’ll see what I mean.


  1. Great post, it's one of my favourite rules.
    Also useless additions make me want to throw away a book. Such as: "'I guess so,' she said and studied her nails" or "'It never crossed my mind,'she said. She took took a sip of her coffee and gave him a curious look."

    Where can I order one of these mugs?

  2. Bill, did I read that correctly? Your editor inserted adverbs? Did you have a strop? Did you stamp your feet? Did you? Did you? Did you?

  3. Anneke, it struck me in the 2nd Stieg Larsson that there were an awful lot of what you call 'useless additions'. They add nothing and they have a negative effect on the reader. As for ordering the mugs, I must check that with Rosemary.

    Michael, let's preserve the impression that I'm not speaking of 'my' editor. Anyway, can you really imagine me stamping my feet or having a strop? I have a 'cool granddad' reputation to maintain.

  4. Oddly enough, I have been roundly chastized for using 'said' when I could have inserted something that would 'pop', to use a populr phrase. So I've taken to varying the rhythm a bit.

    I also did a long run of dialogue, a short rat-a-tat machine-gun-fire set of exchanges, between two - and only two - people, and lo and behold "I had trouble following the dialogue."

    And I prefer, 'bill said' because when I read it, there's a downbeat on the 'said'. when it ends with 'Bill' (or any other name) I tend to give the name an upbeat. Maybe that's because 'she's an American'.

  5. Adumbrated...bah humbug! "I'm not looking it up, either," she said.

  6. I love

    It includes jpegs with 'adumbrate' in the title. Howsomever, I shall continue to 'insinuate' or 'intimate' rather than 'adumbrate'. Personal preference, really.

  7. Diane, yes there'll always be someone who prefers the way we DON'T do it. And, even with only two people chatting, I always insert a couple of 'saids' now and then, just to keep the reader (and myself) orientated. But I'm surprised at your preference for Bill said, because that final (necessarily stressed) 'said' diminishes the impact of the name. Ah, what fun it all is.

    Linda, you know I put in words like that especially for you. Actually 'adumbrate' was a word I learned as a student when my room-mate and I decided to expand our vocabulary by working our way through the dictionary and adumbrating sentences containing the words we didn't know. I only remember one - 'I arrogated an avuncular umbrella to abrogate the rain from my atavistic ginger hair'. (Those words, including 'adumbrate' weren't used correctly but it helped me to remember their true meaning.) Unfortunately, we never got beyond 'A'.

  8. I would correct that to read "fortunately, we never got beyond A"

  9. We may have the same publisher but not the same editor. Mine wants me to substitute action for all the "saids." That requires some brain drain and looks ridiculous on the page to me. Ah, editors. You can't live with them or without them.

  10. Loved this topic! I never know whether to use Bill said or said Bill. To my foreign ear, Bill said sounds better, somehow. But I have no idea why. :)

  11. I don't entirely agree with the said rule. Certainly it should be the norm, but there are situations where it conflicts with the importance of using strong verbs to say more with less.

    "Piss off," he greeted me.

    says more than:

    "Piss off," he said.

    and has a different meaning to:

    "Piss off," he burped.

    Yes, this is the grasshopper contradicting the master, so do feel free to tell me off.

  12. My foreign ear says the same. ('"Bill said" sounds better,'my foreign ear said)
    In Dutch there is only one way to say it, maybe that's the reason.
    And Gary is right too of course. Perfect example how to use the rule.

  13. Jean, a cup is hereby awarded. Just copy the image and paste it on Murderous Musings. No idea whether the real version of it is available but I’ll find out from Rosemary in due course. It strikes me that the one illustrated is for left handed writers since the message should surely be facing outwards towards the interrupter.

    Scary, Gary, and Anneke (whom I group together because you’re all foreign, even though Gary doesn’t acknowledge the fact),
    This whole Bill said Said Bill thing is obviously a question of personal preference – and (Scary and Anneke), you both speak and write English so well that your opinions on it are as legitimate as those of native speakers. My own preference of not having ‘said’ last is because the last word of a sentence is stressed (unless, for deliberate stylistic reasons, the writer uses a very weak syllable there), and 'said' should almost disappear, which it what happens when it precedes the speaker.

    And, grasshopper (who has long had no need of the master’s input and who is just back from a triumphal US tour), I’m sorry but I can’t accept your example. ‘He greeted me’ is a complete sentence and the slight awkwardness of the finite verb with its object being asked to be synonymous with ‘said' blunts the impact of ‘Piss off’. For me, it would have worked better if you’d said ‘His greeting was effusive/warm/typical/blunt/friendly/aggressive/considered’ (take your pick of the appropriate adjective), then hit return and had ‘Piss off’ on its own on the next line.
    But thank God we don’t all write the same way.

  14. Ahem. I'm almost afraid to speak up in this group, being a rustic amongst the cosmopolitans, so to speak. Still...I think the 'Bill said' versus 'said Bill' might also differ by country, not just English versus other languages. 'Said Bill' is unusual in American writing, and putting it that way always makes me stumble over it as a reader, unless the writer uses that construction through out so I get used to it. Swapping back and forth might actually make me crazy enough to stop reading a book.

    Of course, there are those who postulate that we in America don't actually speak real English, so what do I know?

  15. OK people, let's establish right away that, far from being the 'rustic among the cosmopolitans' she claims to be, Kari Lynn writes brilliant, highly LITERATE blogs about her life in Montana and all sorts of exotic pursuits that make me feel as if my life is the equivalent of sitting in bed watching daytime TV. See for yourself at:

    So, Kari Lynn, I'm grateful for your comment. Apart from anything else, it educates me about the US response to 'said Bill'. I understand now why the editor made some of the changes, and I see that she was right. I had no idea that putting the name last had that effect over there and the idea that it might cause a reader to stop reading is troubling.

    As for you 'speaking real English', I was once directing As You Like It in Rhode Island and when I was giving some notes to the cast after a rehearsal, I said 'You made a bit of a meal of that speech, Josh'. I noticed the smiles on their faces and asked 'Don't you use that expression here?' to which the reply was 'We use very few of your expressions here'.

  16. Thank you, Bill. And now that you've been so kind as to call me literate, I shall follow up with a upcoming post about dirt clods.

    As for expressions, I'm guessing you don't say "Spit the bit" or "Screwed the pooch", huh?

  17. See what I mean, people? Dirt clods, spit the bit, screwed the pooch - priceless wee gems to expand your horizons.

  18. I was referring to the left-handed cup, Bill, not an award. Maybe I should cut and paste it and blow it up into a sign to plce on my door. :)

  19. What an entertaining post, as usual, not just your rousing essay on adverbs and dialogue tags, which I have copied to my Bill's advice on writing file, but the wonderfully fun comments. Let's see if Kari is rustic, what am I? Glad she broached the subject.

  20. Hmmm - a 'Bill's advice on writing file'. Wish I had one of those. And you know you're not a rustic - your blog tells us so. You're a city girl - a sophisticated urban presence in the bayous.