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Speech Indicators: Forget About ’em!

January 27, 2012 by Kiersi

Yelling Girls

Things have been rocky lately with development on my YA series, The Devil’s Throne, causing these sporadic updates.  Titles are being thrown around for the first book–my boyfriend insists on Girl Burning. My mother is still adamant that Fire and Brimstone is the most memorable, but to me it seems to give away too much. I’ve been working with the title Burn, because it’s simple and powerful, but that could also make it less visible.

At least something good has come out of it. I’ve changed the title of the second book, Demonology, to something a little more elegant: Creatures, because the story revolves less around the girl, and more around the monsters. (Shoot, maybe Monsters should be the title?)

On to the point of this post: Today I want to tackle the curse of the speech indicators–mainly because I used to be a hardened criminal when it came to littering good work with silly verbs like remarked and muttered and beseeched. (Today I even found grunted, growled, and snarled, all in one paragraph. Blech!)

“What!” You might say. “But interesting speech indicators give my dialogue color. They describe how my characters are speaking. They give readers a sense of tone or urgency.” Then you may storm off in a huff.

Well, I understand why you’d feel that way. At one point, I totally agreed with you. Then I discovered the other side of the coin: Simple speech indicators, like “said” and “told,” (even told has a little more sparkle to it than I usually prefer) tell the story without diluting it or confusing it, and let the few interesting ones you do use really stand out. Even better, removing speech indicators completely makes the dialogue still readable, and much more fluid, as if it were rolling right off the characters’ tongues.

The only way I can possibly convince you is to show you (with examples! I know you love examples) how simpler speech indicators make the text itself take front stage, enhance the quality of the dialogue, and you won’t lose any color or tone or urgency.

“What did you put in this?” I demanded.

“Put in what?” asked Missy.

I held up the red plastic cup I’d confiscated from Jason. “This drink you gave me earlier. What did you put in it?”

Missy’s lips twisted in a glossy pink sneer. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, shrimp.”

I gestured to Jason. He was halfway on Everett’s lap, giving a girl on the next couch an exaggerated come-hither gesture. Then he raked his hands back to his chest and his head lolled to one side.

“I gave my drink to Jason after you made it for me. Funny coincidence that he’s been puking and hitting on tables after only one drink,” I said.

“He could have had more. You’re just making shit up,” yawned Missy. She rolled her shoulders, and gave a sigh like she was exasperated with me. Every hair on my neck prickled and I just wanted to reach out and do something horrible to her face so she couldn’t give me that self-satisfied smirk anymore.

“Sure. Because that’s totally okay, Missy. To drug some chick in your class just because you’re a jealous bitch,” I snapped. I rose up on the balls of my feet and something hot and melty welled up inside me, filling my nose and ears and eyes until I was a single vibrating ball of rage.

The force of the palm of my hand colliding with her face sent both of us stumbling in opposite directions.

“God damn it!” she howled, covering both of her cheeks (though I’d only hit one), her eyeballs bulging. Then they slitted and she hissed, taking a half-dozen steps backward until she ran into the wall.

Everything in the room had stopped. Nobody moved. The music pulsed in the background.

Okay. That was pretty bad. Now cleanse your eyes and ears and let’s try it again with fewer, less interesting speech indicators, and see how the dialogue flows like a river.

“What did you put in this?”

“Put in what?”

I held up the red plastic cup I’d confiscated back from Jason. “This drink you gave me earlier. What did you put in it?”

Missy’s lips twisted in a glossy pink sneer. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, shrimp.”

I gestured to Jason. He was halfway on Everett’s lap, giving a girl on the next couch an exaggerated come-hither gesture. Then he raked his hands back to his chest and his head lolled to one side.

“I gave my drink to Jason after you made it for me. Funny coincidence that he’s been puking and hitting on tables after only one drink,” I said.

“He could have had more. You’re just making shit up.” She rolled her shoulders, and gave a sigh like she was exasperated with me. Every hair on my neck prickled and I just wanted to reach out and do something horrible to her face so she couldn’t give me that self-satisfied smirk anymore.

“Sure. Because that’s totally okay, Missy. To drug some chick in your class just because you’re a jealous bitch.” I rose up on the balls of my feet and something hot and melty welled up inside me, filling my nose and ears and eyes until I was a single vibrating ball of rage.

The force of the palm of my hand colliding with her face sent both of us stumbling in opposite directions.

“God damn it!” she howled, covering both of her cheeks (though I’d only hit one), her eyeballs bulging. Then they slitted and she hissed, taking a half-dozen steps backward until she ran into the wall.

Everything in the room had stopped. Nobody moved. The music pulsed in the background.

See how that that one verb, howled, really stands out now? It becomes the center of the action. Even better, it’s quite clear by the action going on outside the dialogue who is speaking, and the dialogue itself tells us how they’re speaking it. “You’re just making shit up,” combined with Missy’s arrogant disinterest in the conversation, tells us everything we need to know about her tone. And if you really need to emphasize something, use italics!

So give it a try. Strip your dialogue and let it shine. I think you’ll be happy with the results.


8 Comments »

  1. abi says:

    Love it, as always. I first heard tell of “said is better” from Susan Fletcher (who wrote /Dragon’s Milk/, etc). My grandma – an aspiring historical fiction writer – took me with her to the workshop. Honestly, “don’t use anything but ‘said'” is probably the only thing I remember, because it was so deliciously subversive of what I’d learned in school.

    Yesterday I read a Newberry Honor book called /Our Only May Amelia/ that blurs speech right into thoughts. It made it feel genuinely the work of a 12 year old pioneer girl, but of course it was actually the work of a talented author (Jennifer L. Holm).

    Okay, I’m looking at the text, and she does use “says” and “say” – even occasional “yelled” or “hollered” but only sparingly. The thing that’s unusual is she doesn’t use quotation marks. So it looks like:

    “Pappa is always yelling at me Don’t Get Into Mischief May Amelia when all I’m ever doing is what some other boy has done first. He says that I am a Girl and because I am a girl…”

    or like

    “But Pappa – I said.
    “Then he hollered so loud I’m sure they heard him over at the Petersen farm.
    “That logging camp’s a dangerous place for a young girl!”

    Etc. As I hope is obvious, the quotes are my respectfully pointing out what I’m stealing from the book – Holm doesn’t use any.

    • Kiersi says:

      Whoa, I really like that. It takes some serious guts to write in that style, but once the reader gets into it–it’s not even noticeable anymore. My mom read a book similar to this that didn’t use quotes at all, either, and you just stop even registering it once the story sucks you in.

  2. Grant says:

    Burn is way better.

  3. Twing says:

    Girl Burning!

  4. Jim Snell says:

    I like Girl Burning best (maybe it’s a guy thing). I think it’s open to more interpretations – plus, something’s going on right there in the title.

    The rest of your post reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing (and he oughta know, right?). Using ‘said’ is #3. Here’s his rules – and I think this is really better advice than I’ve read in any books about how write, and this is short enough to copy ‘n paste here:

    Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing

    (Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, then turned his talents to crime fiction. *)

    Never open a book with weather.
    Avoid prologues.
    Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
    Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
    Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    * Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

    • Kiersi says:

      Ha!! Awesome, Jim. I think I’ve seen that exclamation point one before, and I remember my mouth falling open and thinking, “I only get three exclamation points in my whole book?” That is much harder when there is a lot of action (people dying, screaming, etc.)

      So glad to have you on here, Jim!

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