Posts Tagged ‘writing’

“Not true!” she cried angrily

Posted: August 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

I like to write (hence this blog, loaded with funny photos as it is.) I try to get better at writing. I read articles, blogs, books, Tweets, etc., about the art and craft of writing, and how to do it well.

One mandate that pops up frequently and has never sat well with me is the assertion that in fiction, your characters should say their dialogue without adding on an adverb. Keep it “he said” or “she said” and stop. This reappeared with the recent death of Elmore Leonard, who gave 10 (otherwise terrific) rules of writing in 2010:

3. 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 to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

It’s the “nevers” I oppose: I like a judicial amount of verbs and adverbs to act as signposts. They help direct the reader with the action and give insight into the emotions and personalities of the characters.

Moreover, pretty much all of my favorite authors use them (of course, this may be the very reason I defend this principle.) I went to my personal library last night and thumbed through a random selection of novels and found them replete with examples; many more than I list below.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House:

“Good night!” she said very sulkily.

“Good night!” said I.

“May I come in?” she shortly and unexpectedly asked me in the same sulky way.

C.S. Forester, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower:

“It’s better up here than down below, sir,” said Finch, apologetically.

“You’re right,” said Hornblower with a disinterested intonation that would discourage conversation.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice:

“Are they indeed!” cried Elizabeth, with the greatest satisfaction.

To this Mary very gravely replied, “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures! They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me—I should infinitely prefer a book.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring:

“It may not matter much,” he said apologetically, “but I would rather not be seen on the road – by anyone. I am sick of my doings being noticed and discussed. And if it is Gandalf,” he added as an afterthought, “we can give him a little surprise, to pay him out for being late. Let’s get out of sight!”

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

“It’s a bad sign,” said Aunt Polly, gravely. “What you got on your mind, Tom?”

“No,” assented Tom, “they don’t kill the women—they’re too noble. And the women’s always beautiful, too.

“And don’t they wear the bulliest clothes! Oh no! All gold and silver and di’monds,” said Joe, with enthusiasm.

Patrick O’Brian, Post Captain:

“I’d press half a dozen prime seamen out of her in the next two minutes,” reflected Jack, while Captain Griffiths hailed her master over the lane of sea.

“Come aboard,” said Captain Griffiths suspiciously, and after a few moments of backing and filling, of fending-off and cries of ‘Handsomely now, God damn your soul,’ the master came up the stern ladder with a bundle under his arm.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Boscombe Valley Mystery:

“We have got to the deductions and the inferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.”

“You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.”

“Anyhow, I have grasped one fact which you seem to find it difficult to get hold of,” replied Lestrade with some warmth.

“I am glad to hear you say so,” said Holmes gravely.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables:

“How is your mother?” inquired Anne politely, just as if she had not seen Mrs. Barry picking apples that morning in excellent health and spirits.

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban:

“A thought that still haunts me,” said Lupin heavily.

The key here is, as I said above, to use this technique very sparingly. Most of the above examples I had to hunt for in their respective novel. Every line of dialogue being uttered chillingly, extolled virtuously, ground out bitterly, whimpered weakly, or muttered softly is exhausting and often redundant. But the occasional change spices things up, speeds the action, and clarifies the characters. I think the anti-verb, anti-adverb position was started by fans of Hemingway and his stripped-down style, but even he – yes, even he – broke this occasionally:

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls:

“Why?” Golz said, angrily. “How many attacks have you seen and you ask me why? What is to guarantee that my orders are not changed? What is to guarantee that the attack is not annulled? What is to guarantee that the attack is not postponed? What is to guarantee that is starts within six hours of when it should start? Has any attack ever been as it should?”

I completely agree with Leonard to avoid prologues, though. Prologues suck.