Anyone who's worked with me will know my love for author, agent and editor Allan Guthrie's superb essay, HUNTING DOWN THE PLEONASM, which is all about cutting the unnecessary from your work to make your voice and your story truly shine. It used to be hosted on the Hi Arts website, which has recently gone AWOL. However, since Al is actually my agent, I approached him and asked if I could possibly host the essay here on my website. Luckily, he agreed, and you can link to/download the essay (in pdf form) right here
The essay changed my writing for the better, and I know its worked for a number of authors who swear by it. And if you like that, you should check out Al's books - HARD MAN in particular remains a favourite of mine, but each and every one of them is a little slice of hardboiled wonder.
I may have covered or mentioned this in several places, but I think it bears repeating. Dialogue tags are important in writing prose - but not in the way you might think.
Over and over again, I come across characters who "extemporise" or "exclaim" or "pronounce", which just makes me cringe (and none more so than characters who "quip") as it draws attention to the dialogue that precedes the tag in an unwanted manner.
For example, when you have something like,
"I want to kiss you," he pronounced
You have a tag that adds a weird imagery to the dialogue. A pronouncement that seems like he's got on a soapbox to say it. Take it away, the dialogue feels more natural. Unless, the idea was that he was saying something in an unusual fashion (in which case, I would always say that surrounding detail should do the work - show us that he's pronouncing something by talking about his actions and tone).
Then you have,
"You're a damn moron," she quipped.
Where a) its clear that this is a joke or a witty aside from the words and the context and b) if we have to be told something's a quip, you might want to rewrite it so that it is a quip.
The thing with dialogue is that the words and the tone should immediately be able to conjure up the sound of the words and their meaning in the reader's head. Its an art, and a damn hard one at that, but writers should be able to convey tone and layers without getting lazy about it and drawing attention to themselves. And that's the thing - "said" is the invisible dialogue tag. It helps us identify who's speaking (which can help with knowing the way in which we should read a line of dialogue)
Here's a little bit from a work in progress where you'll see that for whole lines of dialogue I don't use tags except for said, and imply tone through both construction and details:
Silence for a moment. Parks takes a drink.
Stark says, “You knew Caulder?”
“The detective who killed himself? Only by reputation. You weren’t a fan.”
“Only to anyone who was in the morning briefing.”
Stark nods. Tight smile. Blood rushes from his lips. “I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
“A good quality.”
“For some people. That morning? I’m not so sure.”
“Its the reason we’re here, now.”
Parks nods. “I’m not some wide-eyed little boy coming into the polis, thinking its all about being Dixon of Dock Green or whatever. I’m not a fucking idiot.”
“With your father, that would be a disappointment.”
“He wasn’t a man who liked to be disappointed.”
“I can imagine.” Stark takes another drink. He keeps looking around, like he’s expecting to find someone watching them. But the evening drinkers are involved in their own conversations, or else their own pints. They don’t give a toss about the two men at the corner table. “So, Caulder’s where it starts. He was in bed with Kennedy. Professionally, I mean.”
That tight smile, for example, shows that Stark's trying for a joke but might be realising he's avoiding the truth. The fact that Stark looks around before starting his story about Caulder tells us that he's speaking confidentially, maybe even whispering. But the dialogue itself is what does the heavy lifting, and with no attention-calling tags to do the work, I think it works okay, especially for a first draft (one of those character names will be changing, given they're way too similar)
I recently re-read George Pelecanos's debut, A FIRING OFFENCE, where the dialogue is so good, Pelecanos rarely needs tags beyond said. Action and tone do all the heavy lifting, and the result is that the reader feels closer to the action because there are no words directing them how to feel - they're being shown it all the time. Its the same with the late, great Elmore Leonard - look at how many of his characters pronounce, proclaim,
Now, sometimes you will need a tag or two when something's unclear or you need to be specific, but using them all the time simply because you want to show that your vocabulary is larger than said has the opposite effect than the one you want: it gets in the way of your writing and trips you up. Its puts the artifice of your dialogue on display where, if you're good enough, the words that fall out of your character's mouths and their actions should be more than enough.
Which brings me to a final point - never ever have your characters "action" their dialogue.
By which I mean,
"That's great," he shrugged.
"God, I love you," she smiled.
These are actions, and not dialogue tags. Its impossible to shrug dialogue, although you can shrug while speaking.
The other thing about using "said" as a dialogue tag is that it will make you work harder at your dialogue so it reads natural, smooth and clean - if the tone and the intent are in the words, your dialogue will, believe me, sing off the page.
Clarity is king in my - forgive the pun - book. And one of the things that I find time and again when reading drafts is that people forget the reader is a book reader and not a mind reader - in other words the author assumes the reader knows what the author is thinking.
This stretches into pronoun usage in many cases - the author knows what they mean by "he" but it can be confusing to the reader. Take this example where two characters of the same sex are in a room at the same time (let's call them Ed and Fred)
Ed walked into the room and glowered at Fred. He looked at him for a long time until he couldn't take it any more and punched him in the face.
Now with a bit of work, you might work out who is doing what to who, but unless you're a mind reader you can't be one hundred percent which he the author means at all times.
Ed walked into the room and glowered at Fred. He glowered at the other man for a long time. Finally, Ed couldn't take it any more and punched Fred in the face.
The pronoun usually refers to the last person or object mentioned - unless it is perfectly clear that it doesn't (in the example above the first "he" clearly refers to Ed rather than Fred if we're in Ed's POV). But where it isn't clear you should be specific about who you are referring to. Sometimes this means you might have to change your sentence structure as in the example above.
But what's important is clarity. If you confuse your reader too often with unclear pronouns, chances are they're going to put your book down and go take an aspirin for the the headache.... before picking up another book which might be clearer and more comprehensible.
One of the extra-writing jobs I do on a freelance basis is slushpile reading for a few publishers. After a while you start to notice patterns in manuscripts, and one of the things I've noticed recently is a propensity to give character's body parts an odd level of autonomy, even in close POV.
His eyes looked at the table.
Her legs started sprinting across the street.
This is definitely a weird construction in any situation. Just trying saying that our loud and think about how it sounds. In most situations we know what body parts will do sprinting or looking, so all you're doing is filling empty space on the page; a huge sin.
Much easier to write:
He looked at the table
She sprinted across the street.
(Side note: there's no need to say "she started" unless something happened before she could really get going)
I think part of this is to do with thinking in terms of being specific - the author believes that they're somehow making things clear to the reader. But where is obvious to anyone (you don't have to be a scientist to know that a person hears with their ears) or its not about to lead to a big surprise (Her legs sprinted across the room - even after her upper body had been seperated from them by the killer's giant scythe) you don't need to be specific about what body parts are doing what; just what character is doing what.
I’m sure we’ve all encountered this remarkably overused but remarkably useful cliché (first coined in the sixties as a design principle by the US navy) but it’s amazing how many of us forget about it when it comes to writing fiction.
A panic often seems to set in about how writers should seek to use language in unusual and interesting ways. We start to think that we need to sound like writers; that every line must be a proclamation of our innate genius (signalled by the use of language in a “writerly” manner).
It’s possibly, in part, the fault of well-intentioned teachers who prescribe to programs like this in the mistaken belief that it’s the words we know and not how we use them contextually that matters within writing.
But such a writing philosophy means we end up with lines this:
“Hey, if I have five oranges in this hand, and five in the other, what do I have?” Alasdair inquired, his tone attempting to permeate the disconsolate atmosphere that had pervaded the preternaturally darkened room, and elevate the mood into the upper echelons of good humour.
That line, by the way, is influenced by genuine slush pile entries (but comes from none of them - the details are non specific to protect the innocent), all of which made the error of thinking that prose should be dense and “worthy”. But, here’s the thing, try reading that out loud. It’s impossible. The meaning is lost in the attempt at being sophisticated. And the sophistication is lost in the effort to use those “worthy” words.
Good prose should always feel natural on the tongue. Consider that audio books are a growing market. As my dad asked when he read an early draft of the manuscript would become my debut: “can you imagine Martin Jarvis reading this on CD?” My dad is, obviously, of a certain age. You might like to imagine David Tennant or Olivia Coleman, perhaps.
Attempting to “sound like a writer” ironically often disguises your voice and muddies the clarity of your storytelling. The above works much better when you do this (although I admit its still not great writing, but hey, this is an example only):
“Hey, if I have five oranges in this hand, and five in the other, what do I have?” Alasdair smiled warily as he spoke. You could cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife. Someone need to say something, to lighten the mood.
The difference here is that the language is plainer, and also more “inside” Gordon’s head (close POV is a hallmark of most modern fiction, whether told in third or first – or even second – person). Sure, “cutting the atmosphere with a knife” is a cliché, but it’s better than tying yourself in linguistic knots trying to sound profound (we’ll talk about clichés another day). Also note that Alasdair smiling warily not only eliminates the need for dialogue tags, but shows the reader that the character is making a joke, even if he’s uncertain about the reaction he’ll get. (“showing and not telling” is something we need to discuss, someday – again, its one of those how-to-write standards that is often misinterpreted).
The basic advice I would give is to keep your sentences clear, direct and simple. That is not to say you shouldn’t use sophisticated words at all, but rather that you should use them when contextually appropriate, and not only because you want to seem smart. We have large vocabularies because there are large contextual uses for them. The job of a writer – of anyone in communications, whether factual or fictional – is to use the right word in the right situation. Keep it clear. Keep it clean. Keep it simple.
Related to this, you should only use words that you are sure of the meaning of. The same goes with phrases, too. I have recently seen manuscripts use the word “nonchalant” to describe someone’s nose, and “translucent” to describe breasts; both of these uses of words sound great but mean something far different than the author intended.
On the theme of keeping things simple, there is a great resource that I point a lot of clients towards; an essay called HUNTING DOWN THE PLEONASM by Allan Guthrie (you may remember it from the previous post on this blog). The essay is an excellent and accessible guide to keeping your prose direct and simple, so that you can stop trying too hard and allow your prose to feel natural, sophisticated, and most of all, comprehensible to the reader.
As you'll know if you go to the bio page on this website, my agent is the most wonderful Allan Guthrie at Jenny Brown Associates. Al is one of those people who really knows and understands the craft of writing. We agree on a number of things, but I think that Hunting Down the Pleonasm may be one of the most practical and useful essays on the craft of line by line writing I've ever read. Simple, direct and actionable, its an essay I give to almost everyone I work with. Veterans newbie writers alike have found it to be useful. So, here's a link to the essay in its entirety. I hope you find it useful as regards your own writing.
A while back, I wrote a brief essay for the incredible team at Emergents (in the Highlands of Scotland) on the art of writing the crime novel. It covers a few points about genre and sub genre, along with some hints and tips that are applicable, I think, well beyond the crime genre. I think it contains some useful hints and tips, and I hope its of some help to aspiring (crime) writers.
Go check it out here.