Saturday, April 24, 2010

He said, she said

In the guide, I contributed an article "The Seven Bad Habits of Highly Unsuccessful Writers," based on my freelance editing experiences. One of those categories is "Saidisms," the overexplanation of dialogue and the way characters speak. I am paraphrasing the novel I am currently editing, to show the intent while protecting identity and content:

Mother pulled the present from behind her back.
"Mu-mu-mother," Rick stuttered.
Mother smiled and chuckled, "It's a surprise."
Rick hesitated and then meekly asked, "Is it for me?"
"Yes," she answered excitedly.

You can see how exhausted the reader can get after a page or two of this. In general, it shows a lack of confidence on the writer's part, not trusting the dialogue to carry the action. Often such a passage spends more time talking about how the characters are talking than on what the characters are saying. The writer may be striving for realism, but fiction can't be too realistic, or we'd have major characters taking potty breaks and eating all the time.

I am a big opponent of "-ly" adverbs (another one of the seven bad habits), and I find them especially intrusive in dialogue tags. In this example, Rick's "mu-mu" already shows the stutter. Mother can't chuckle a full sentence, or even a word (try it sometime!). Rick doesn't have to meekly reply; if the character is firmly established, we may already see he's meek, or it may be unimportant. He also doesn't need to hesitate. It adds no realism besides making the reader have to plow through a couple of extra words. If it's critical to create a pregnant pause, use a brief bit of action or business instead, such as: Rick touched the red ribbon. "Is it for me?"
Finally, we should hope Mother is excited. Let the scene show it. If it's a make-or-break moment of the story, I MIGHT forgive an exclamation point, but if the scene is well written, all the appropriate emotions will be clear.

What's wrong with:
Mother pulled the present from behind her back.
"Mu-mu-mother," Rick said.
"It's a surprise."
Rick touched the red ribbon. "Is it for me?"

Not award-winning prose, but it is brisk and fluid and allows the scene to move along. If Rick is already established and they are the only two people in the scene, we can even forgo the "Rick said."

Interestingly, Write Good or Die is rated #1 in the "erotica writing" category at Amazon. While there's no specific erotica guidelines included, good writing is good writing, and some people thing the thesaurus is sexy. Our intent was to help writers of every interest, so we're pleased. Happy writing, we say supportively.

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