In his enlightening book On Writing Stephen King makes a passionate endorsement for the word "said", advising writers to use it in preference to any of its many synonyms.  But, being a writer, not an editor, he doesn't do much to back up his endorsement.

I'm often asked about the word "said".  It's something a lot of writers have trouble digesting, and some even reject the common wisdom outright.  However, I do have an opinion on the matter, and as usual it's a strong one.

I pretty much agree with Uncle Stevie on this one, but On Writing is not the first place I encountered this tip.  My favorite book on the craft; Dave King and Renni Browne's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers touches on this also.  Their argument is two-fold: first, avoiding the unadorned "said" often forces your character into a physical impossibility.  One does not "gasp" a sentence.  A gasp is, by its very definition, not a sentence.  Second, fancy synonyms for "said" always catch you in the act of stuffing character emotion into what should be a purely mechanical device.  Character emotions do not belong in speaker attributions, they should be present in the dialogue itself.  If that's not possible (and it sometimes isn't), emotion belongs in the pieces of body language surrounding the dialogue (what I call "beats".  More about beats in this post).

Speaker attributions are a mechanical device, and they have but one humble purpose: to identify the speaker.  Ideally, they should be thought of almost like punctuation.  And everyone agrees that over-punctuating makes you look desperate to get your point across!!! Don't you agree???

The beauty of "said" is that it's transparent.  The reader doesn't really even see the word.  Assuming they're sufficiently focused on the story (and not the words on the page) their mind will instantaneously substitute the speaker's identity, and the attribution will have done its job without ever calling attention to itself.  In my opinion, this kind of transparency is the most noble goal a writer can have.

Because "said" is so transparent, anything else in its place becomes conspicuous.  In general, we don't want readers to focus on our words, we want them in the story.  But used properly, the conspicuousness of another verb can actually work to your advantage, provided you aren't using it as a crutch to prop up weak dialogue.

Personally, I feel free to use any verb that denotes the volume, tone, or (occasionally) cadence of a speaker's voice.  Shouted, whispered, whined, or blurted will sometimes find their way into my work, but I use them sparingly because I know that every one is a risk.  Any verb in place of "said" has the ability to knock the reader out of the story, and make them focus on the word itself.  Most of the time, the risk isn't worth it.

Another common problem I see with beginning writers is the inclination to use adverbs to prop up their speaker attributions.  People never just "say" anything, they say it "sarcastically", or "brightly", or "arrogantly.  Again, this catches you in the act of stuffing character emotion where it doesn't belong, but on a grammatical level, it catches you using two words to do the work of one.  Everybody hates it when we see six construction workers standing around watching one guy pour asphalt into a pothole.  Why should we be any less infuriated when words do the same thing?

The reason is of course that when we write a line of dialogue, we hear it in our head.  We struggle to capture the exact way the character said it, because we want the reader to hear it the way we did.  But I find it seldom matters whether the reader hears a line of dialogue exactly the way I heard it when I wrote it.  Part of the joy of reading is that you get to read a story in your unique way, and if I, the writer, force you to read it exactly my way, I rob you of that joy.  It's a perfect example of a writer standing in the way of his own work--sacrificing transparency.

So I've let go of the idea that readers must read every line a certain way, and focus instead on clarity.  I trust my readers to be smart enough to pick up on subtext, and I try to make it easy to pay attention.  And truthfully, if you have to jump through awkward, wordy hoops to ensure that readers hear a line just so, chances are something is wrong with the line itself, and your efforts would be better spent pumping up the dialogue itself.

If you feel the urge to use something other than "said"--or God forbid, to use "said" along with an adverb--what's really going on is you have a character emotion you're trying to work into dialogue.  A speaker attribution is by far the weakest hook to hang emotions on.  The dialogue itself is by far the strongest.  Which has more emotion:

"I find you very attractive," Bob panted arousedly.
"You're so fucking hot."

I have found it is usually possible to reword any line so that it carries the proper emotion.  Occasionally though, you will want the dialogue to be slightly off kilter with the emotion, either for comic effect, or because the character feels some need to restrain themselves.  So how do you work those subtleties into a passage of dialogue?  How do we show sarcasm without clunky attributions like "he said sarcastically?" or "he quipped"?  How can we show that a speaker is saying something they don't really believe?

But in those situations, body language can almost always help you, using what Browne and King refer to as "beats".  And for that, you'll have to take a look at the next article.

Often when I express my opinion on this matter, people say "But I see it all the time in published authors' work!!!"  It's true, some authors get away with verbs like "intoned", or "guffawed".  Some editors don't care.  And many readers won't actually notice, or feel intruded upon.  Sometimes, these verbs aren't that conspicuous, because whatever is going on in the scene is sufficiently engaging that we don't notice.  No matter what principle we're discussing, there will always be some author who "gets away with" doing it the "wrong way".

But you don't want to "get away" with your writing, do you?  You don't want your writing to be some savagery you perpetrate on your readers, do you?  If not, stick to "said".


Tell a Damn Story!

Nobody ever sat down and said, "You know, I've got some extra time.  Maybe I should spend it letting some writer cram their opinions down my throat."

If you ask people why they read, nobody will answer, "Because I like to hear what fiction authors think about real-world issues."

This is an issue that perplexes and angers me a great deal, and it ties in to my thoughts on the Path of Least Resistance.  So many authors--especially new ones--seem to think that novels are a good way to put their political, religious, or philosophical opinions across.  And they labor under the false impression that their opinions are welcome.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that stories are a great way to put ideas across.  Isaac Asimov taught me about the power of individuality and rational thought.  J.K. Rowling taught me about the power of friendship and love.  H.P. Lovecraft made me irrationally terrified of large mountains, even when I'm not on top of them.

Because I believe every story makes an argument--whether the author means to or not--it follows that stories communicate ideas.  But that isn't why humans write stories, and it's certainly not why readers read novels.  Nobody likes it when a story is a thin, obvious excuse for climbing on a soap box.

If someone picks up a book, and within a few pages they can see the author only wrote it as an excuse to wax philosophical, they get turned off to that book and that author--even if they agree with them.  Surely you've read books, or seen movies, and had this reaction.  It's that feeling that you've been deceived; that somebody pulled a bait-and-switch on you.  Nobody likes the feeling of being suckered, even if they like whatever they've been suckered into.  And if you feel the need to sucker people into listening to your opinions, maybe you ought to keep them to yourself.

There are dozens of great reasons to write fiction, but in my mind, the most pure and noble is simply because you want to tell a story.

Don't write a novel because you want people to think racism is deplorable.  Write a novel because you have a moving, emotional story in your head that demonstrates that racism is deplorable.  Don't write a novel so you can espouse your environmentalist views.  Tell an enlightening, human story that demonstrates why we must be better stewards of the planet.

In short, don't tell us what you think, show us something that might make us think like you do.  Because in truth, that's the only way to reach people anyway.  Nobody enjoys being lectured to.  Nobody accepts a new idea because somebody else badgered them into it.  People learn from their experiences.  So if you want to teach them something, you have to make them experience something.

Readers read because they want to be transported into a story.  Audiences go to movies because they want to feel something.  As consumers of entertainment, we want to be excited, thrilled, scared, and relieved.  We want to fall in love with the good guys and hate the bad guys.  We don't want to be lectured at, or admonished for our behavior.  We get plenty of that from our parents and bosses.

We read books and watch movies because we have a basic need to get out of our own heads for a while.  If we happen to discover something profound while we're out, that's great.  But that's not the reason we go out in the first place.

If all you want is to express your views, you should be a blogger, not a novelist.  But if you're willing to let your opinions--and yourself--play second fiddle, you might be able to tell people a story.  And that story might just change them.  And they'll love you for it.


I Used to Hate That Book

We all have those books, the ones we never wanted to read, the ones we forced ourselves to finish, the ones we immediately tried to purge from our memories. We read most of those books in high school.


This guest post is from Tom Treweek, award-winning journalist and author of The Dutchman's Mine.  You can check out more of Tom's work on his website, and you can follow him on Facebook.

I actually loved books in high school--the ones I brought for myself. I read a lot of Michael Crichton back then. A lot. I was an adolescent boy who found a book about dinosaurs running wild in the modern world. Was I supposed to resist?

The only classes I got bad grades in were reading. It wasn't because I wasn't good at it, it's because I never read what they wanted me to read. Yeah, down with the man.

And one of those books that sunk my grades (that sunk a lot of students' grades) was The Great Gatsby. Yeah, that one. The book that, at the time, seemed to exist only so teachers could educate their pupils on the many forms of symbolism. I mean, seriously, can't I just enjoy a book without having to pull out some special decoder ring to figure out which color is supposed to represent the resurfacing lust for an old flame? God.

I finished that book on fast forward, skimming as quickly as possible, trusting that I'd pick up the important points from the class discussion.

I didn't, hence the bad grade.

Move ahead twenty years (after we pause so I can weep silently at the time that's flown by), and I could be found back in school, this time during my stint as a substitute teacher. One one particular day, I found myself overseeing a "resource" class, which is code for one of two things: either the school's cognitively challenged students, or its behaviorally challenged students. This class was the latter, and the teacher, who was out sick (or "sick") had been reading them The Great Gatsby.

Every other class in the school had the students read it for themselves, but this class couldn't be trusted with this task. The only way they were going to get some of F. Scott into their brains was via the silky smooth tones of a quality amateur reader.

Whatever. I didn't pick the assignments. I just tried to get through the day, just like the kids who were barely pretending to pay attention in front of me.

So I opened the book and read a sentence. God, it was just as boring as I remembered. I read another. Then a paragraph.

Then Lucille poured a drink. And it all came together for me in one glorious moment.

Everyone was drunk practically without pause for the entire book!

I couldn't help myself. I suddenly slurred my speech as I read the words between quotation marks, drawing laughs from students. It was probably a bad idea, or it would have been if I had thought about it for even a second. Maybe those kids found a new love of books. Maybe I pushed them toward alcoholism. Being an optimist, I prefer to think I did both.

But the revelation wasn't for them. It was for me. And it wasn't just Gatsby that opened up for me. I suddenly saw how all books transform at the mood of their readers, how the different stages of life alter our perspectives, how the accumulation of experiences only add depth to fictional imagery.

The way we read anything is overwhelmingly colored by the experiences we take into that reading. Traumatic histories that cloud our future, a bad breakup, a restful weekend, a new relationship, these all shape the way we understand our favorite literature. That's why so often, when we return to a book years later, we'll find that we interpret it differently. That's how I finally found The Great Gatsby entertaining, having first read it before my first drink, and then reading it again after becoming almost as professional a drinker as a wordsmith.

But it could be a bit more subtle than that. Maybe sometimes you read Lord of the Rings and focus on Sam's heroism, and sometimes you focus on his sacrifice. Sometimes you look at that sacrifice with pride and other times with regret. There is no limit of the ways your current circumstances can affect the way you read.

With this revelation, I was a new man, a new reader, a new writer. And probably corrupter of children.

I tell you this story not only to make you laugh at my past follies but also to encourage you to revisit those books you loved in your youth--and those books you didn't. They change. They grow. They evolve. Just like you do. And the test of true friendship is the ability to grow together. Yes, books are your friends. Sigh, I am such a nerd.

What books have changed for you? Which ones do you want to revisit? Share them in the comments below.


Indy's Comma Rules

A friend from my critique group is always haranguing the rest of us about our poor comma usage. I will freely admit that commas are one area I still struggle with, even though I work as a professional editor. The unfortunate fact is that usage conventions vary by country, era, and style guide. But my friend Indy sent along the more universal and comprehensive list of comma rules I've come across since The Elements of Style, and I'd like to pass it along to you.

  • Rule 1: Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.
    • The candidate promised to lower taxes, protect the environment, and reduce crime.
  • Rule 2:  Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
    • I have painted the entire house, but he is still working on sanding the doors.
  • Rule 3: Use commas after introductory clauses or phrases that come before the main clause, and introductory words such as well, no or yes. 
    • While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.  (There's a long dead English rule that said three or more words in the introductory clause did not require a comma, so many people mess it up nowadays.  But the rule now is that any introductory phrase get a comma).
    • Yes, I do need that report.
  • Rule 4:  Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are NOT essential to the meaning of the sentence.  If these words are dropped, the sentence will still retain the same meaning.
    • I am, as you probably noticed, very nervous about this.
  • Rule 5: Use commas to separate two or more adjectives that describe the same noun when the word "and" can be inserted between them.
    • He is a strong, healthy man.  (He is a strong and healthy man).
  • Rule 6: Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates, addresses, and titles in names.
    • I lived in San Francisco, California, for twenty years.  (No comma is needed after the state if the state's name is abbreviated.)
    • She met her husband on December 5, 2003, in Mill Valley, California.
    • They met in December 2003.  (No comma is needed if the entire date is not used.)
    • Al Baker, M.D., is our doctor.
  • Rule 7: Use commas to separate a direct quotation from the rest of the sentence.
    • Mother asked, "Who wants to get ice cream?"
    • "I do," he said.
  • Rule 8: Use commas when necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.
    • To Steve, Lincoln was the greatest president.  (This is an introductory clause, so it actually falls under that rule, but there are other instances that don't fit neatly into one of these other rules.  But beware: "To prevent misreading" does not mean to add a comma whenever you pause to take a breath.)
    • Rule 9:  Use commas before or surrounding the name or title of a person directly addressed.
    • Will you, Sam, have the surgery?
    • Yes, Doctor, I will.  (Capitalize a title only when directly addressing someone.)
  • Rule 10: Use a comma to separate a statement from a question.
    • I can go, can't I?
  • Rule 11:  Use a comma to separate contrasting parts of a sentence.
    • That's my money, not yours.
  • Rule 12: Use commas surrounding words such as 'therefore' and 'however' when they are used as interruptors (not conjunctions) .
    • I would, therefore, like a response.
    • I will be happy, however, to volunteer my time.
    • Mr. Baines lives in Tucson; however, his children live in Phoenix. (used as conjunction)
  • Rule 13: Comma splices.  Two complete thoughts are not connected with a comma unless there is a conjunction.
    • I'm going to town, I'll be back soon.  (Comma splice!)
    • I'm going to town, but I'll be back soon.  (Correct usage.)
    • I' m going to town; I'll be back soon. (Not incorrect, but these two ideas are not connected closely enough to warrant a semicolon.) 
    • I' m going to town.  I'll be back soon. (This is the ideal way to punctuate these thoughts.)
Anyone have any rules they'd like to add?  Anyone catch me violating one of these rules in this very post?  Comment below!