Writing Dialogue with an Invisible Word
Does the idea of using tricks in your writing appeal to you? Are you fond of clever ways to get your ideas across? These are two questions I’d really like to ask each of you… in private, and with the promise of complete anonymity. As a brief aside, I believe we all have (at least) two selves. I call them Living Room selves and Kitchen Selves. Who we are in the Living Room is formal, careful of speech, prime, proper, and showy. Who we are in the Kitchen is the person we are with our family when there are no visitors around. I’m always interested more in the kitchen self than the living room version.
OK, that said, what do you think of writing dialogue using an invisible word?
I get it that some of you are bouncing in your seats, hands raised, hoping to be called on. You know the word I mean, right?
The word is “said“.
A hallmark of new writers is how is how they write dialogue.
We’ve discussed in the past that formal speech fails in dialogue every bit as often as does “real” speech. Both fail because they sound funny.
We’ve pointed out that formal speech is stilted, and off-putting. It is only correctly used when a character is making a speech, or is a stuffy old person with more education than civility.
We’ve noted that writing dialogue like people really speak either confuses or bores the reader. We know this because we’ve taken the time to listen to real dialogues, and know that people do not speak in sentences, they jump from topic to topic, use uhs, ums, and other filler words, interrupt, disrupt, and go off on tangents. If our characters did that regularly, there would be no way for a story to progress.
Another mark of the neophyte writer is believing that repeating a word over and over in a passage is a bad thing. OK, fine. Sometimes that is true. But there is one word, one nearly invisible word, that can be used over and over without fear. As noted above, the word is “said“.
Not “said shyly”, or “said angrily” or even “said quietly”, or with the addition of any of the “ly” words. Just said always works, and it never feels overused. It can’t. It is virtually invisible.
It is fine to toss in a “he whispered”, or “she shouted” from time to time (think of those as stage direction), but typically you want the actual dialogue components to convey emotion and meaning.
If you find yourself disagreeing, doubting, pick up a novel by any well-received author, and skim through the various dialogue sections. See for yourself how often it is only that small, unassuming “said” that you see for a dialogue tag.