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Monday, April 25, 2011

He Said, She Said

My fingers tremble as I write this. I'm almost afraid to open this debate. Do I dare?

But, fellow writers, do you know there's a move underfoot to teach young writers the importance of using dialogue tags other than SAID????

Okay, I know there are exceptions to every writing rule. But, especially for young readers, the dialogue tag "said" is mostly best. Not exclusively, perhaps. But mostly.

Characters hissing and pouting and grumpily saying their lines-- this so goes against my grain.

I have Darcy Pattison's book Novel Metamorphosis open in front of me this morning:

"The actual words of the character should already reflect tone, emotion attitude."

In other words, SAID is just fine. Perhaps if used exclusively, it would get boring. Mix it up maybe? But do not overdo the adverbs attached to your SAIDs either.

Pattison goes on: "Also, avoid adverbs and present participles."
ex: She said quaintly.
He said, gently scratching his nose.

(OK, I do that last one a lot, she types, reading along with the book. I'm working on it, but it doesn't bother me so much.)

Pattison goes on to say that these work occasionally but don't let them become a habit.
But I agree it's often better to "omit the action or use a separate sentence with the action more direct or more interesting."

And Anita Nolan, another very wise blogger/ editor, re: revising:

Look at the dialogue tags. Stick to "he/she said" for most tags. Use beats (actions) when possible to eliminate a tag. For example. instead of:
      "Shut the window!" she yelled.
      "Shut the window!" Her shrill voice ricocheted around the room.       

       "Shut the window!" She crossed the room and slammed it closed herself.
     •    Eliminate adverbs when possible. Search and destroy "-ly" words.

So, teachers, please. Do not over-emphasize the dialogue tags.
No to HISSED, especially. It's hard to hiss a simple declarative sentence with no ssss sounds in it.

I'm not even bothering to put up a link to this movement: "Said is Dead." But it's out there. Google it and you will get lesson plans, tips, serious attempts to rid the world of SAID. A writer friend tells me she's received letters from students, re-writing her award-winning novels using different verbs for said. 

I envision the next generation of books for kids, written by these very same youngsters studying this movement. They are filled with dialogue that is hissed, spit, sighed, giggled, cried sadly, laughed loudly...


Barbara O'Connor said...

"Why don't we discuss this a minute?" she suggested.

Such an interesting topic. I certainly understand that children need to be taught to use "vivid verbs." Zoomed, trudged, swirled, fidgeted, scrambled, lunged, etc etc.

But as you point out, anybody taking Creative Writing 101 will tell you that one of the first rookie "mistakes" is substituting a plethora of verbs for the simple tag line "said" (commanded, complained, whined, demanded, etc.)

Ellen Potter, in her terrific writer's handbook for children, SPILLING INK, calls those dialogue tags "noisy tag lines."

And even worse are the tag lines that aren't even ways to actually SPEAK (sighed, giggled, chortled, gulped, etc)

SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King is another writers' how-to (a classic) with great info on this subject.

The word "said" becomes almost invisible to the reader and lets the dialogue do the work for itself.

"So, what do children think when they read good literature that breaks the rules they are being taught?" she wondered.

I'd love to hear other views on this interesting subject.

Darcy Pattison said...

Interesting indeed!
My post talks more about this issue. It's part of the Spring, 2011 Writing with Children Newsletter.

One tip for teaching dialogue is to use comics, which already highlight dialogue in speech bubbles. Take any panel and try to add a speech tag and punctuate correctly.


Stephanie Blake said...

Sometimes I like to mix it up with


but mostly said is the word!

Dianne said...

Yes, I'm afraid this is true. I've been in district workshops where "writing mentors" are instructing teachers to teach their students to add variety to their sentences by substituting "said" with other, "more interesting" words.

Another district suggestion? First graders should be including similes in their descriptive paragraphs. As if simply throwing in random bits of figurative language (without understanding their purpose) automatically makes a paragraph stronger.

As Barbara said, any Creative Writing 101 class will teach you otherwise, but it's a case of districts trying to push the bar higher and higher and expecting students to perform at a level of cognitive sophistication beyond their years.

As a writer myself, I ignore much of what I've heard touted by my district as strategies to encourage better writing from my students. But I know many teachers at my site consider the district writing mentors "experts" and don't take the time or have the expertise themselves to question these suggestions.

D.A. Tyo said...

We are in agreement! I, too, was going to reference SPILLING INK by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer.

I used the dialogue chapter with my sixth graders this year. They were in awe as I told them that 'said' was perfectly fine...that the reader will become invisible to the word as Barbara O'Connor has referenced in her comment.


D.A. Tyo said...

We are in agreement! I, too, was going to reference SPILLING INK by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer.

I used the dialogue chapter with my sixth graders this year. They were in awe as I told them that 'said' was perfectly fine...that the word will become invisible to the reader as Barbara has referenced in her comment.


Mr. Lewis said...

So, I admit- I encouraged the present participle as a strategy to enhance their tag.

"Add actions to your dialogue." I'd tell them, pacing across the room.

I reread some of my student's writing for their use of dialogue tags because it comes up a lot when we're writing narrative.

I try to root my writing lessons in work we find in high-quality literature, but I guess I'm unsure of how to explicitly teach dialogue tagging. (Besides discouraging the overuse of "vivid" verbs).

I have a copy of Spilling Ink and will be consulting first thing tomorrow. I'd love to hear about any other resources out there that people have found useful.

I'm including an excerpt from a narrative where this student's scene relies heavily on dialogue. If there's someone out there who's interested in advising, excellent. But please, don't feel obligated!

I looked at the ground, then up again to see 10 pairs of eyes staring at me. “Hi,” I said in a soft voice. No one moved. Then I screamed, “hello.” Everyone jumped. “My name is Emma,” I said awkwardly. No one answered. I said, “my name is Emma.” “We heard what you said will you at least let us introduce ourselves,” one of the girls interrupted. I was to shocked to respond. Well she said, “I am waiting.” Oh I mean “were waiting for an answer”. “Sure,” I said. Now she said, “my name is Leah.” These peoples names are … “Hey,” said another girl, “let us introduce ourselves.” “Hi” she said to me, my name is Fiona. “Hi I said. So want to ride bikes said Leah.” “Sure me and Fiona said.

Thanks for bringing this up for discussion!

Augusta Scattergood said...

Darcy's link is very straightforward. Thanks for that! As she says, if you're using verbs other than SAID to teach thesaurus use, maybe. Otherwise, no!

Great comments, all around. Thanks, especially, Dianne for verifying the rumor we'd heard about teaching this. Said is dead? I sure hope not!

Barbara O'Connor said...

Glad to have a teacher's perspective here.

But I wonder how writers can handle the dilemma of conducting writing workshops and teaching techniques contrary to those being taught in class.

"Such a dilemma!" she sighed.

"It can't be done," she marveled.

"No, don't do it!" she demanded.

"Hmmm," she pondered.

P.S. I know I'm being flip here, but I really do find it an interesting dilemma. No job garners more respect from me than that of teaching young folks. Thus, I always pay attention to what and how they teach. Believe me, I've learned a LOT from teachers.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Okay, Mike...I tried my hand at editing the sample paragraph (which I think is terrific, btw. Love her use of dialogue to tell/show the story).

You have much more experience editing young folks than I do. I'm hesitant to be too heavy-handed, but here's a stab at it. I've also tried not to be too harsh with the alternate tag lines. There is certainly a place for them. But perhaps one alternative is to help students use action to replace tag lines altogether.

Here we go:

When I looked up, I saw ten pairs of eyes staring at me.

"Um . . . hi," I said. [perhaps adding the "um" shows the hesitancy and shyness better than the soft voice?]

The other girls [clarify that they are girls here] just stared at me. My face burned.

"Hello!" I screamed.

Everyone jumped.

"My name is Emma." I shifted from one foot to the other, then looked down at the ground. [show an awkward movement vs telling awkward]


"My name is Emma," I repeated. "I --" [show the interruption vs telling]

"We heard what you said," one of the girls snapped [okay to use alternate tag line here, I think] "Will you at least let us introduce ourselves?"

I opened my mouth to respond but nothing came out. My mind raced. [show shock]

"Well," she said, "I'm waiting." She glanced around at the others, then crossed her arms and cocked her head. "Oh, I mean, we're waiting for an answer." [let her movements show her feelings]

"Sure," I said.

"My name is Leah." She pointed at the others. [action replaces tag line] "Their names are--"

"Hey!" one of the other girls said, "Let us introduce ourselves." She turned to me and smiled [action shows feelings], "My name is Fiona."

I smiled back. "Hi." [action replaces need for tag line]

"Want to ride bikes?" Leah said.

Fiona and I answered at the same time, "Sure!"

[Note: I may have misinterpreted Leah's attitude at beginning. I thought she was being a "mean girl" but then things softened toward the end. Author might want to clarify that]

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

This discussion is great! And it cracks me up!

*holds up hand*: Yes, I use the word "hissed" occasionally. And sometimes it works. ;-)

Love the "noisy tag lines". Of course, I discovered Ellen Potter a few months ago, raced through all her books, and now I adore her. I will purchase every book she writes now - just like I buy Barbara O'Connor's books every single time.

Confession here: When I was a kid trying my hand at writing my very first stories I actually made up a list of tag words and I thought I was so very clever. I soon learned/realized that it wasn't kosher at all. That it was awkward and smacked of newbie-ism. This was WELL over 30 years ago. Okay, okay, twist my arm! 40 years ago!

A few months ago a mother of a college-age wanna-be writer daughter told me that her daughter had created a list of dialogue tags! And wasn't she clever! And just so brilliant! It was a sign that she was going to be a published writer someday!

Um. NOT.

All I could do was smile at her nervously.

Kathy Wiechman said...

In tag lines as in most aspects of creative writing, I hate to see strict rules. I used to tell my creative writing students to use discretion with any rule that used the word "always" or "never." Young writers should be steered toward learning the best way for them to write while still retaining the creativity that makes them unique.