Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Don't Need No Stinking "SAID" - a RANT!

Frustration is a BAD thing to generate in your readers. Books that frustrate (poor grammar, limp dialogue, wishy-washy action, weak description, over-blown description...etc.) are tossed against a wall. The technical term is: Wall-Bangers.

(Warning! Rant Ahead!)
A personal pet peeve:
Don't Need No Stinking "SAID"!
-----Original Message-----
… Another thing that drives me crazy, is dialogue that's hard to follow, without something to keep the reader on track as to who is talking (ala Hemingway)."
I absolutely, positively agree. Line after line of unidentifiable dialogue is LOATHSOME.

Readers are good for putting a book down - to light a cigarette, go to the potty, eat a bagel, pour a cup of coffee, talk on the phone, watch TV, go to sleep…etc. Then picking the book back up again in any given location.

If the reader has to backtrack to figure out who the heck is doing (or saying) what - for any reason - you did it WRONG.

And your book hits the wall with a resounding BANG!

First rule when writing Advertising Copy:

#1 Rule in the Military:

Applied to Fiction:
The Reader always sees what THEY want to see
-Unless you SHOW them something else.
Readers that don't know what's really going on will just make whatever assumptions comes to mind - then get confused when you start detailing the action again.

I remember reading one whole page of dialogue - only to find out that I had two of the characters reversed. Did I reread that whole page to figure out what was going on? Hell no! I tossed the book across the room - BANG! (In fact it's still on the floor, gathering dust bunnies.)

But reading a million and one "He said..." / "She said..." or remarked...etc. is equally as Loathsome. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy Beginner writing.

I write my dialogue without using "said" tags, unless I am actually describing a change in voice, tone or volume in the same paragraph. And even then I avoid them. I use the speaker's actions to define who is speaking to whom.


What the heck is an Action Tag?
Language is Visual not just a bunch of words. Watch the average conversation between two people. 90% of that conversation isn't in what's spoken, it's in what they are DOING as they are speaking. It's in their Body Language. Body-language cues the reader as to what is going on in a character’s head – in ADDITION to dialogue and internal narrative.

Don't just SAY it! ~ SHOW IT!
“I love you too.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She dropped her chin and pouted. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She glared straight at him. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She turned away and wiped the tear from her cheek. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”

Body-language cues the reader as to what is going on in a character’s head – in ADDITION to dialogue and internal narrative.

“Amun, what are you doing out of your suite? It’s not safe.”

Amun abruptly pushed away from Luxi.

Luxi gasped as her mind suddenly returned to her in a tangle of heat and confusion. What had just happened?

Amun blushed and frowned past her shoulder in annoyance. “Your timing is utterly inconvenient.”

“So I see.” A tall man in a dark bodysuit strode past Luxi, toward Amun. A long tail of distinctive silver hair fell to the center of his back. He came to a sudden stop and turned around. His steel gray eyes widened then narrowed. His face was cast in deep shadows under the lamplights, but there was no mistaking who he was. “Well, hello Luxi. Cheating on me already?”

Leto? Luxi winced and turned away in painful embarrassment. Fate and Glory, it figured… The only two men she’d kissed in several cycles would know each other.

Ars frowned at Leto. “You know Luxi?”

“Quite well, actually.” Leto’s smile was thin and sharp. “We shared a tramway car.”

Oh you bastard… Her cheeks heated with a sudden rush of hot memory.

Amun looked over at Luxi and his brows rose. “I…see.”

Luxi scowled at the deck. There was simply no way to explain her actions. Fine then, she wouldn’t bother. She lifted her chin and held out her hand to Amun. “My hair clip please?”

“Of course.” Amun reached into his pocket and placed the clip in her palm. His fingers brushed hers and heat shimmered from his touch.

Luxi shivered just slightly and pulled her hand away. She took a wary step back from both men and began the task of coiling her hair back up.

“So, Amun, were we having fun?” Leto’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

Amun lifted his chin and folded his arms across his chest. “You realize that you are embarrassing Luxi?”

“I’m trying to embarrass you!” Leto took a step closer to Amun and his mouth thinned to a hard line. “You think I don’t know what you were doing?”

Amun looked away.

Leto’s hands tightened to fists. “That better be guilt I’m seeing.”

Luxi frowned. What was going on? From the way Leto was glaring and the way Amun refused to look at him, you would think they were…lovers. “So, just how well do you two know each other?”

“Not nearly well enough.” Amun shot a narrow glare at Leto.

“Amun, if you want me to play villain, you know better than most, that I am very qualified for the part.” Leto lowered his brows and folded his arms. “Are you ready to go back?”

Amun stared fixedly at Luxi. “I will do so when I have what I seek.”

Leto’s mouth curled in a tight smile. “Did you try asking?”

“This? From you?” Amun raised a sarcastic brow at Leto. “Did you ask?”

Leto scowled then sighed. “You have a point.” His hands dropped to perch on his hips and he looked over at Luxi. “Amun, is my employer.”

Luxi choked. “He’s your employer?”

Amun snorted. “However, there seems to be some doubt as to who is actually in charge.”

Leto rolled his eyes. “Luxi, I need to get him back to the suite. Why don’t you come with us?”

Amun started tugging on his gloves. “I would be most obliged, and I do owe you dinner.”

“Go to your suite?” Luxi crossed her arms. “What? So you can both seduce me?”

Leto pursed his lips and looked over at Amun. “Well, yes.”

Luxi blinked. “You’re admitting it?”

Leto shrugged. “I tell the truth on occasion.”

“Don’t believe a word.” Amun suddenly smiled. “He’s the one being in the entire Empire that can actually lie to a professional telepath.”

“You would know.” Leto snorted. “Since you’re one of them.”

Luxi reeled in shock. Amun, is professional grade telepath? She sucked in a sharp breath. So that’s what had happened. Amun had used his telepathic talent to magnify her interest in him, her attraction, into full-blown sexual obsession. She aimed a glare at Amun. “You rolled my mind – you sneak!”

Amun winced and looked away.

“Sneaky does not begin to describe him.” Leto’s smile broadened. “Amun, has control issues.”

Amun raised a brow at Leto. “You don’t seem to mind my ‘control issues’.”

Leto snorted. “Say’s you.”

End Example.
From "Fortune's Star"

Don't just SAY it! ~ SHOW IT!

Description in your Fiction
Too many conversations read like a TV show with the picture too snowy to see anything clearly. Hell, too much FICTION is written that way too. (Sigh.)

If you want to write Fiction with clarity, you have to VISUALIZE what is happening in your head. Play the scene out in your imagination and view it, just like a movie. If it shows up in your mind's eye - it belongs on the page.

Okay, so where was my Setting description in that hunk of dialogue, you may ask? It was at the BEGINNING of this scene, (which was not posted.) I do what they do in the movies: I Set the Stage at the beginning of every scene THEN put the actors and action in. This way the setting does not bog down either the action or the dialogue.

Want a LIST of body-language cues?
Go to: "The NON-VERBAL Thesaurus"

Want to know HOW to add description without bogging down the action?
Go to: "I Want to SEE the Story! Damn It!"
Putting Description in your Fiction

Morgan Hawke


  1. I read a good portion of your article but got yanked away by my son- literally. I will go back and re-read the entire thing because this is the kind of help I was looking for. I just started writing my very first book and though I know how to describe every last detail, I wasn't sure as to how I could incorporate it without sounding like, "when you walk in the front door you make a left and go up the stairs" lmfao.
    This is awesome advice.

  2. I am a writer (not professional.) that uses "said" alot. and it ties back into grade school for me. Said was something expected. and became a crutch. thanks for enlightening me.