Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why Present Tense Bothers Me

I keep trying to read it in past tense. Then a word comes up and reminds me that I've been reading it wrong.

That's it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Comment on Dialogue Tags

I forget that we’ve been told never to use said.

It’s not that I really don’t remember, it’s that I assume every new individual has already gotten past it, come to terms with it, has about 16 arguments in their arsenal as to why we should or should not be using it at this time.

So when my friend asked me for some advice on dialogue, I wasted ten minutes trying to figure out what she was concerned about. My personal experience is that Painful Writing either comes from not knowing something or being too afraid of something. Until I knew what that something was, I couldn’t really tell her why she was stumbling.

I asked her, and she couldn’t put it into words. She kept hinting at the issue, but my brain, thinking we were on the same page despite her being in the exact position I had also experienced for the majority of my early career, would not guess that maybe she just wanted to use the word said and felt like she wasn’t allowed.

The issue was finally solved when I happened to gloss over it, mentioning something like, “When you’re using said, consider—”

She immediately jumped on it.

“I am allowed to use said?” she said. “I was told since kindergarten not to.”

Then I remembered. Yes. That’s right. There is this controversial issue that seems super important when first starting out that, with time, will later be a worry completely forgotten about. I do consider what verbs I want to use in dialogue tags still, but it has long now stop being an issue of taking sides and just doing what I feel is right.

My friend was relieved. It seemed to lift a weight off her shoulders. I know that feeling. I too have been victim to being concerned about inane “rules,” even ones I didn’t agree with. We are so limited by the “you should” “you shouldn’t” mindset that we often are looking for permission to make choices that we logically know are good (or at least fine).

I said, “Yes, you have my permission to use said.”

She told me to shut up.

Sure, people do use it way too much. Above, I had it twice within the same line; something I did out of satire. You’ll notice that having them so close together can sound weird. Or you might have noticed that you did not notice. In either case, it is fairly true that when reading any “bad fiction” the dialogue tags are the first choice to stand out.

I’m not denying that it can be hard to make tags sound right (they are somewhat unnatural outside of the context of text and literature). But, as most authors learn, using said is still an option. For that matter, so is not using it.

There are a couple of easy ways to tell when either is appropriate.

1) When it is repetitive.

We think faster than we speak, speak faster than we write. This is the number one reason our First Book sounds unnatural. The brain thinks differently writing than when we are saying something. Primarily, we talk so fast that we are less likely to repeat the same word over and over. Listen when someone is ranting and you’ll notice that, while they do echo more often than a professional book would, it is a lot less than a bad high school essay.

When writing, some authors will type a sentence, stop, type another. We forget what words we used, so we will reuse them. This sounds unnatural because, had he been at speaking speed, he would have remembered he’d just said that and would try to use something else.

This is a long way to prove that repetition is bad, something in which most of us already know and agree with. Or so I assume. Basically, using said too much in the same space sounds funny.


Most occasions the repetition is more about the sentence structure than the word choice. It is common to have dialogue consistently: “Quote,” pronoun verb. Essentially, “Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Get the hell away from me,” she proposed.

Sometimes it’s not the issue of the term said, but that there is no variation on the delivery. Play around with order of words and means to convey who is speaking and how they are speaking, and then you open up the option to use said again if so desired.

At times, this:

“There’s nothing in the punch,” said Jeremy.

She looked at him before holding it out and saying, “Smell it.”

“I am not going to walk around sniffing cups,” he said. “Just drink it.”

is more interesting than this:

“There’s nothing in the punch,” Jeremy insisted.

“Smell it,” she goaded.

“I’m not going to walk around sniffing cups. Just drink it,” he spat.

Honestly, if I was actually writing this scene, I would probably do a mixture of both, varying in both structure and with synonyms. Toying with diversity is the fun part, and by having a whole bunch of different options, the author can do what he wants in a satisfying way, not needing to sacrifice to any artificially imposed boundary.

(Actually, if I was actually writing this scene, I would probably do no dialogue tags and then proceed to get a bunch of “Who the hell is talking?” Because I never learn.)

2) When it is obvious the author is trying not to use the word said.

Metareading should be avoided as much as possible. This is where the reader stops thinking about the story and starts considering the author’s intention and motivation. She tears from her willing suspension of disbelief and is completely brought from the world back to reality.

Because using said or not using said is talked about so much, readers pay more attention to it. Not only that, but they will relate to an author trying not to use it. This is not a good thing. If the reader thinks she can make it, she’s not going to buy it. So when someone notices that the author is making an effort to not use the word, she won’t be impressed.

If the only reason behind a choice is to not be said, it will read like that. The said synonym needs to have multiple purposes to sound natural, i.e. there is a cause for the narrator to be saying it other than, “I just said said.” It should indicate a facial expression or tone that adds to the dialogue, but doesn’t abruptly subtract to what is already implied. Especially when the reader is picturing something better.

3)  When it draws attention to verb and the importance is the pronoun.

In most circumstances, the reason why a tag is there is to tell who is talking. Now before you say duh, there are some moments in which it is there to tell how it is being said. It’s just less common.

Tone is important, and text doesn’t have any. It can be influenced and indicated, the reader being led to imagine how it should be heard, but without vocal inflection and body language, it often can be misconstrued. We can give a few details, but we don’t have enough time to go through everything that’s significant.

Often there is flexibility.

“How are you doing?” can be said in many different ways, but the reader will pretty much get the point unless there is something unusual about it.

“How are you doing?” he spat.

is a very different image then the assumed

“How are you doing?” he said.

If, however, there are subtle moods and context being played, or if it’s a joke, or if there’s a specific rhythm, or if there is a large spectrum on tonal options, or if there is a specific personality that needs to be conveyed, the author will add a tag not because is unclear who is talking, but because the readers’ natural assumptions need to be contradicted or unified.

“Get away from me,” he said flatly.

tells a different attitude and intensity than

“Get away from me,” he hissed.

The first would solicit a separate reaction than the second, and, if the audience isn’t on the same page as the author, they might not feel like the responses are rational. In the first, where he is not as upset as much as put out, he can probably be talked down pretty easily. In the second, it would be harder to get him to listen. If the audience is picturing A and the reader is picturing B, the scene might not be cohesive.

That being said, this isn’t usually the case. Most casual dialogue will come out on track, following indicated moods and open for various tones. In these circumstances, noticeable verbs sound really strange.

Abnormality draws attention, attention indicates importance, putting importance on verbs is unusual. It happens every day, but is still less common than inflection on prepositions and nouns, or, primarily, negatives and positives. So when the important part of the tag is who is talking and it looks like the author wants us to notice how he is talking, it can feel unnatural; subconsciously he would chose a blending word if he didn’t want to have attention drawn to it. Because he chose a colorful word, it seems as if it is important for it to be that word. If the significance is beneficial to the author and not the story, the reader will unfortunately come to that conclusion.

So situations like,

Jim walked in. Susie immediately clapped her laptop shut.

“Hi!” she squeaked. “What are you doing here?”

are sensible. The point behind the dialogue is to show she is nervous, so how she said it is what the reader should be paying attention to. But places in which the author only wants to tell which character is saying what,

“Does your mother know you’re out here, little boy?” Tommy queried.

“Nah. I just saw his mother last night!” Fred teased.

“Don’t bring my mother into this!” Grant ejaculated.

can sound really, really off.

4) When we want support or influence.

Tied in with the rest of my points is the concept of influential verbs versus supportive verbs, and how what we want to use depends on the rest of the scene.

If we think of writing like driving, influential words would be the gas or the break, whereas supportive verbs would be coasting.

A supportive verb is a word free from preexisting connotation. It has no innate judgment or description attached to it. Words like “said,” “walk,” “sleep,” and anything you might find in a Dick and Jane book are supportive words. They can be done in any way a human can think to do something. An influential verb is the opposite. It tends to mean something specific, and can’t be paired with just any adjective.

We can walk cautiously or casually, but it’s hard to picture someone ambling gingerly.

Supportive words don’t add anything to the scene; they support what is already there. This means that if a voice, style, or atmosphere has been created, it won’t be brought to a screeching halt by “said.” But it also won’t keep up the tone for long. The story will start to lose its ambiance if there aren’t enough influential words pushing on the gas.

Essentially, the right influential word can create a fantastic tone, but it’s not all that uncommon for authors to be hitting the break when they meant to hit accelerate. Using the wrong influential word can destroy what has already been built.

Therefore, said is a great tool to use when there isn’t an appropriate influential word to take its place. As long as the tone is conveyed through action and the actual dialogue, there isn’t a problem. When the author has used supportive word after supportive word in the bulk of the text, however, he will find he hasn’t gone anywhere. You can’t coast without gaining speed first.

5) Whenever the hell you want.

I think the “because I don’t want to” is a viable argument. Great books come from passion, opinions, and personality. People who try to remove their own personal tastes from their writing will create something with no taste.

In the long run, a person is allowed to decide whether or not he wants to shoot himself in the foot, but more to the point, it’s up to him to decide if he’s shooting himself in the foot. From personal experience, sitting around trying to trust other people’s differing opinions is hard, and to some extent, impossible. Sometimes we just have to make our own opinion and have faith in it.

The writer is his own master and he gets to decide if he likes the way something sounds. Of course, he needs to try and be unbiased, to focus on his goals and the best tactics to achieve them, and not to be a member of the “I meant to do that” party. But, because he’s the only one who has to face the ramifications of his choices, and because writing is so subjective, and because there’s so much bad advice out there, we can’t disregard our own personal preference.

And, in reality, the problem isn’t that an author is wrong about his opinions, it’s that he might not have any. Which is to say, we sometimes don’t know if we like it better with or without said. That’s where the biggest headaches come from: uncertainty.

The best advice for knowing when and when not to use said is to consider how we personally feel about it. Remember that you’re creating a style that you want to be known for, a book you want to be proud of, and influencing literature in a way you want it to be influenced. So check out other writers and see who you like and don’t like, and if dialogue tags contribute to that opinion. Consider your goals, the story, the atmosphere, the characters, and how said does or does not support them.

But, remember, when all is said and done, it’s really just about, “Did I want to use said?” If the answer is yes, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. If the answer is no, then it also doesn’t matter what other people think. If the answer is “I don’t know,” then it’s time to figure it out. Until an author knows what he wants to do, he can’t know if it’s the right thing to do.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Wanting a Glass of Water

This week while teaching theatrical summer camp, I asked a group of fifth graders if they knew what an objective was.

The answer I received: “A person, place, or thing.”

To which I responded: “Close.”

Then: “No, actually. Not really close at all. But good effort.”

As a student, I never understood the phrase, “Every character should want something, even if it is just a glass of water.” This seemed like one of those arbitrary rules that teachers forced on us because it was easier for them if we just obeyed and did extra work. Being a lazy actor, writer, student, person, I was always looking how to best be efficient (i.e. cut corners) and so I wasn’t about to commit to something that seemed bureaucratic and inane.

And to be fair, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Teachers can make their students go the extra mile by asking them to do things they never even considered doing themselves. Some of these activities are only theoretical—an idea the professor came up with while driving to work. They haven’t been tested, and there really is the possibility for them to be useless or even, on some occasions, detrimental.

Since, however, I have passed from being Head-Up-My-Ass Teen to Brown Nosing Adult, I have finally come to understand some past advice I never expected to really get.

First is that many exercises are problem-solving tools to be used contextually, not universal rules only meant for the obscure, crappy amateur.

When I first started drawing, I looked at the faces with little Ts sketched across them, and I remember thinking, “You expect me to believe the experts do that every time?”

And they don’t. And so I didn’t. And I didn’t, and I didn’t, and I refused and was stubborn until I started making a weekly web comic about two years ago, in which the exercise’s point was delivered to me through necessity. The reality is that there are times when I struggle drawing well, whether it be because of position or mood, and in those times I pull out the Ts.

Or I lose them. I consistently switch back and forth because sometimes the exercise is exactly what I need to keep moving ahead, but sometimes it may screw me over, making creations far worse than what freehand would do. It just depends on the context, and I use my understanding of that to overcome problems that I might otherwise only be able to tiptoe around.

This evolution of thought process is not just mine; I recognize it in my students. A few weeks ago I couldn’t stop laughing when a young girl reminded me of this in the most honest manner possible.

I was sitting, trying to write my fourth story in A Year of Writing, and I was completely unable to find any sort of idea to inspire me. So I do what I do in these situations and I started to outline, to plot out, to mull around themes and conflicts until I came up with something that excited me. As the students ran about for their free play, one came up to me and sat down to see what I was doing. Not understanding immediately, she asked. I explained. She blinked and said, “Do you do that every time?”

And I laughed.

“No,” I said. “I really don’t.”

I’m always surprised by the kids’ surprise at how I operate. I try to write whenever I can, and I’ve had several students express alarm that I am “writing outside of school,” “doing homework during lunchtime,” and, God forbid, “outlining.” They would never do that, but, after years and years, it has become an assumed part of my life. I forget that I was once of the Never Doing That Party, and that not everyone understands why someone would want to tackle things in that manner.

When I was young, I didn’t get the Gray Area of context, and this meant that I couldn’t decipher advice passed my immediate interpretation. It was either wrong or right, period. No matter how many times someone repeated (parroted) the “everyone should want something,” advice, I didn’t understand it. They just kept saying it, didn’t bother to explain it, and I’m not entirely sure most of my teachers even could explain it. So I heard it once, decided it was wrong, and no matter how many different people said it again, it had already been denounced; nothing could change that.

It wasn’t until years after having had it told to me that I finally figured it out—by reinventing the wheel. I came to a separate theory on my own before finally linking it to what I have been told over and over again. Suddenly, I got it. I knew how I got there, and so understood why it was true. Not only did I finally get what was important about objectives, but I learned to recognize why I didn’t get it before.

The issue? I believed that they wanted me to add an objective. The reality is that I needed to find it.

A character always wants something, even if she’s not actively seeking it, even if it’s being overshadowed by what the author wants. The problem is not that the writer needs to jam in an artificial desire, but to sift through a crap-encased muddle until he understands why the character said or did what she did. There’s a reason why the writer put the words he chose. The question is what that reason was and why it felt false. We don’t think about objectives in real life—few consider what motivated them to do what they did—but our subconscious will always have its reasons in any case. So no matter how bad the dialogue, false the action, or seemingly irrelevant the information, the objective was there; it’s just a question of if it’s important to the story, suitable to the situation, or all that interesting.

Instead of telling me that a character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water, (which is clever if not that clear), had my teachers put it in their own words and mixed it up a little (and had I gotten my head out of my ass) I would have been led to understand instead of having it placed in front of me with the belief that I should just get it or have faith. I was 12-22, an age where not only was head in assery an unexceptional feat, but where I was being lied to (or simplified to) constantly and didn’t have enough information to understand when or where. For that matter, I still don’t. I couldn’t commit to every “clever” idea being thrown at me, and I had (have) no way of telling what was bull or just over my head. It’s a lot like abstract art in that manner.

I too tell my kids everyone wants something. But then I say, “even if it’s just to make the teacher shut up already and go back to playing games.” Suddenly, they seem to get it.