Monday, January 9, 2012

Lessons From Third Grade English

My third grader came home a few weeks ago with some English homework consisting of sentences with a verb and one or more qualifying adverbs. She was supposed to replace the weak verb and qualifiers with a stronger verb. Two of the sentences caught my attention. They both involved dialog. In one, the verb to be replaced was “said quietly”. Of course "whispered" was the correct word choice. The verb to be replaced in the other was “said excitedly” and that was replaced with “exclaimed.”

That got me thinking about dialog in writing. Dialog is an integral part of fiction writing because it gives the characters voice. That voice breaks the monotony of narration, highlights the personality of the characters, and tells what the characters are doing, feeling and thinking. More can be done with well placed dialog than with multiple paragraphs of descriptive narration. Unfortunately, too often the word used to describe what the characters are saying is that innocuous “said.” Oftentimes we use qualifiers and description of movement or position for example, “Oh No!” she said emphatically, placing her hands on her hips. However, a strong verb replacing the “said emphatically” could give a clearer mental picture of the person’s feeling and movement.

I went back over my WIP and I counted how many times on a page of dialog I used the word said. I was amazed at the frequency. There are so many more words available and yet I was stuck on the innocuous word said. I was limited.

I came to the conclusion that I need help. I would like a list of words that can be used instead of “said” to describe dialog, capture emotions and movement. Here is a short list of some words:

Exclaimed: said excitedly
Commented: said
Insisted: said forcefully
Whispered: said softly
Cooed: said soothingly
Inferred: said with implication
Intimated: said subtly
Shouted: said loudly
Cried: said loudly with passion

I know there are many more. So please add to the lists. Let’s see how much we can come up with. Be sure to include the meanings.


Charles Gramlich said...

The one advantage to said is that it is 'so' common that it largely becomes invisible to the reader. I know it does for me. Other strong words are great but it's always a fine line between catching someone's attention and drawing them out of the story. I find lots of times I can just leave out any statement of said, or otherwise if it's clear who is talking. They used to have some crazy ones. I remember reading books from the 30s in which they'd have as a dialogue tag, "she ejaculated." Couldn't really get away with that one today.

KeVin K. said...

Depends on the genre, Charles.

I likewise use said or no tag at all nine times out of ten.
Part of this is a safety measure. My low sense of humor leads me to insert tom-swifties. (I once submitted a story with the sentence: "It's a fir," he opined. For some reason the editor removed the last two words.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lol Charles. I can find ways of using "ejaculated" in my genre, but it has little to do with dialog.

KeVin, leaving out the tags only work if the dialog is between two people. Sometimes in three or more person dialogs leaving out the tags can cause confusion and throw the reader out of the story. Also, "said" can be really innocuous especially when you want to capture the emotion of the person or the mood of the moment.

So we have "ejaculated" and "opined" thus far. I'm hoping to get additional dialog words.

Lynn Emery said...

I fall on the side of either using "said", or no tag; instead try using words in the dialog itself or scene to let the reader know the mood/tone. I say give your readers credit. If you describe the non-verbal cues well they will FEEL the mood, rather than being told. Having more than one or two inventive dialog tags jerks me out of the story, and IMO unecessary because I know the person is excited, anxious, etc. if the writer has done a good job wordsmithing.

Liane Spicer said...

What Lynn said. If the writer is doing his job well he shouldn't have to depend on dialogue tags to clue the reader to the emotions of the characters. And yes, to do this writers have to unlearn what they were taught in third grade.

Stephen King has good guidelines on this topic in his On Writing.

Carol Mitchell said...

I have the same third grader, Jewel. Last year she was the "said", "went" and "nice" police. If you said any of these, she would be very quick to point it out.

Writing for children, I can't leave out too many of the tags because young children need a little more guidance in their books than adults do. That said, (oops), I can't use too many creative words or my readers will decide that I am trying to teach them something and quickly shut the book!

Mentioned: said in passing.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lynn and Liane, though you are correct in many instances, there are scenes where being able to visualize the movement and feel the emotion do hinge on the tags. Now we can't use a million and one of them in a short dialog, but a few well placed tags can have an impact on imagery. But, you are right we must give the readers credit.

However, like Carol, I have been trying my hand at writing children's novels. My eight-year-old co-writer and critique partner has been quite quick to point out that she didn't know who said what when I had extended dialog without tags. She had to reread the passage to figure it out. That for a grade school kid is permission to dump the book. So the "leaving it up to the reader" depends quite a bit on the targeted readers.