Take Five: #11: Invisibility

Take Five
Five-minute reads about writing
to help you with NaNoWriMo
Nov. 1 - Nov. 30, 2011
Courtesy: Sasha Soren (Random Magic)

#11: Invisibility

Crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard shares ten of his rules of writing with a site sponsored by several publishers, The Next Big Author.

One of his motivations in sticking with most of these rules is to keep himself out of the story. His commentary elsewhere: 'These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book.'

Here's one of his rules:

Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue. 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 and go to the dictionary.

And he is correct in this - using the word 'said,' or being able to skip the word 'said' just by making it clear who's speaking through the use of context or distinctive character voice, is definitely preferable to all kinds of extravagant ways to say that simple word.

The reason for using the plain, no-frills 'said' versus more exciting options, is that it does actually distract the reader. 'Said,' on the other hand, is nearly invisible; it's a word that registers without necessarily being very noticeable.

Now, wouldn't agree on never using another word, apart from 'said,' to carry dialogue; once every so often is like using a pinch of salt in a pot of soup, to add a little zing here and there.

But, yes, would agree that overall, maybe 99% of the time, 'said' is definitely the word you want, due to its very ordinariness, it's not jarring and doesn't distract from the dialogue - which is what you'd rather have the reader notice, anyway.

One last point on 'said' - you might not even necessarily have to use the word as much as you think you do. If you're ending every other line of dialogue with 'he said' or 'she said' or even 'it said,' then it's going to become wearisome for the reader, even though the word itself is nondescript and barely registers.

A reader will definitely notice a word that's continually repeated, though, and if using 'said' a few times on every page, it'll soon start to become an irritant.

One of the reasons for using 'said' is to indicate dialogue - but since dialogue has quotes around it (spoken dialogue does, in any case, not necessarily internal dialogue), it's already clear that the words are being spoken, making 'said' sort of redundant.

So, the second reason for using 'said' is just to clarify which character is speaking, to help readers keep track of a conversation, particularly if it's a long one. But you can easily make it clear from the line of dialogue, just who it is that's speaking.

If a male and female are speaking to each other, you won't have to write 'he said' or 'she said,' if it's clear who's speaking at any given time. If a character has a particular way of speaking, then their voice should be easily identifiable.

If you have a few lines of dialogue, you can add a 'he said' or 'she said' or '(character name) said' every so often, just so people can figure out the flow of the conversation.

If you have a conversation including more than two people, then, yes, you might have to include 'said' a few more times, otherwise the conversation could easily become really confusing, as it's not clear who's speaking and when.

On the other hand, you can also make 'said' part of the narrative, and then let the dialogue flow from that line. That way you establish who's speaking in the narrative line, and don't have to include a 'said' when the character starts speaking.

All sorts of variations work, it's just up to you to choose which combinations you'd like to use.

So, yes - don't worry about making up wild alternatives to 'said' - because you actually shouldn't really use them, anyway, not if you can just use 'said,' plain and simple.

On the other hand, it's also possible to tire the reader by using 'said' for every single batch of dialogue. If you can possibly find another way to communicate the information (through context, light use of 'said' only when necessary, or by identifiable character style or intonation), that'll make for a better experience for the reader.

So. That will help!

Aha, back to Elmore Leonard - you'll find a link to his full list of top 10 rules on writing below, along with a complementary video clip that you might also find enjoyable and informative. On a quick side note, he's right about naming characters the right way, also - he discusses this in the first part of the video below.

Shown above: Elmore Leonard discusses his writing rules
Browse: Elmore Leonard's top 10 rules on writing

About this series
The Take Five series is curated by Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic. You can find out more about the book here, if you like:

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