A wonderful writer (my Dad, actually) once told me, “Good reading makes hard writing.” And it’s true. In order for the words to flow smoothly, a writer has to concentrate on moving from one idea to the next, in a logical sequence, and with proper pacing while at the same time finding new and clever ways to express fairly common ideas and situations. It’s not easy. But when it all comes together, it’s oh, so rewarding.
Writing good dialog is just as hard. If you want it to be good, you have to work at it. Fortunately, there are a number of things writers can use to spot areas for improvement. There are three which plague dialog, and writers who wish to be published need to be aware of them. Treat them like warning flags: dig here!
I doubt more than one English class in a thousand ever covered said-bookisms. That’s too bad, otherwise a few bazillion people who now use them might have learned to avoid them instead. [sigh]
A said-bookism is simply a speech tag other than “said” or “asked.” (Some purists even disdain the use of “asked.” Not me!) The so-called alternatives include an array of words that attempt to describe how someone said something. They include but aren’t limited to: demanded, declared, murmured, shouted, shrieked, exclaimed, inquired, queried, replied, implied, and whispered. Among the most famous said-bookisms, absolutely guaranteed to give an editor hives, are: hissed, huffed, barked, frowned, laughed, sneered, and — my personal favorite — smirked.
The second grouping is characterized by impossibilities. Try, for example, to bark some critical bit of information. Or frown it. Or smirk it. One might concede that it’s possible to laugh something, but it likely wouldn’t be funny.
There’s nothing wrong with “said.” In fact, it becomes invisible to most readers (which is good). Said-bookisms, on the other hand, tend to slow down the pace and, if used liberally, can ruin an otherwise good scene. They can easily become intrusive and annoying. Use them sparingly.
They are best employed when the dialog’s intent might be unclear. For instance: “Isn’t that just dandy,” he groused, or “Great! Just what I needed,” she groaned.
Don’t just use an adverb instead!
Some writers take the easy way out. They’ll substitute an adverb <shudder> for the said-bookism. To wit:
–Said Bookism: “You think you’re so smart!” Mona hissed.
–Adverbial Tag: “You think you’re so smart!” Mona said angrily.
The solution? Write around the problem; show what’s going on: Mona shoved the display so hard it hurtled off the table and smashed against the wall. “You think you’re so smart!”
Tom Swifties — funny if intentional, disastrous if not.
It can get worse. There’s a breed of adverbial modifiers that almost make said-bookisms seem desirable. These are known as Tom Swifties, named after a popular series of YA books produced continuously since 1910, in which a phrase was linked via pun to the manner in which it was delivered. (Puns, we refined folk believe, are the lowest form of humor. The worst puns can drive some people over the edge. It’s true. I’ve seen it!)
Here are some examples culled from a 2009 New York Times competition:
“The Babe has been fired!” said Tom ruthlessly.
“I dream about a less shapely proportion,” said Lola figuratively.
“Oh, I dropped my toothpaste behind the sink,” he said, crestfallen.
“The unemployment rate has increased again,” Tom said laboriously.
“Angelina Jolie isn’t pregnant,” said Tom unexpectantly.
“I adore hamburgers,” he said with relish.
“I’m never on time,” Tom said belatedly.
The point? You don’t want readers to start laughing in the middle of your prose (or memoir) because of an ill-considered phrase.
Lastly, avoid the King Kong of wretched said-bookisms, the 500-pound gorilla squatting in the parlor: “But Mona, darling, I love you!” he ejaculated.
Next up: How much is enough?