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.