No, really. Hear me out.
So, I’m listening to this audiobook as I drive around town running errands yesterday during lunch. It’s an unabridged adaptation of a book I’ve not previously read, and I’d been looking forward to enjoying the story. The reader chosen for the narration was not someone I’d previously heard, either, so look at me! Trying new things and shit! “Woo,” and might I add, “hoo.”
Anyway, I fire up the audiobook and commence my errand running, and it doesn’t take long for me to realize that the writing (and the reading) has fallen into a pattern…a mind-numbing, soul-eating pattern from which my only escape was to swap the audiobook out for something else (Steel Panther, Feel the Steel, in case you were wondering).
What was this pattern, you ask? While this is not an excerpt from the story, I did model my example after a couple of sample pages from one of the opening chapters as depicted in the book’s print version:
“Sit down,” Joe said.
“What’s up?” Bob said.
“This is important,” Joe said. “It’s the scene where we convey a lot of exposition through dialogue.”
“Sounds pretty serious,” Bob said.
“Indeed it is,” Joe said. “We could be here a while.”
“That’s fine,” Bob said. “I have no idea what my character’s supposed to be doing in this story yet, anyway.”
Joe tapped his finger on the table. This probably could have led into his next line, but the writer didn’t feel that necessary or appropriate for some reason. Instead, he carried on as normal.
“You’re probably thinking this sounds pretty monotonous,” Joe said.
“Yeah,” Bob said. “Now that you mention it.”
“Don’t hope for it to get better,” Joe said. “We seem to be trapped in a pattern now.”
“Can I cross my arms?” Bob asked.
“Only if you do it in its own paragraph before speaking again,” Joe said.
“Seems weird to do it like that,” Bob said.
“I know, right?” Joe said.
“Hey,” Bob said, “what if we put ‘said’ or ‘asked’ before the actual dialogue? You know, just to change things up a bit?”
“I don’t know how to do that,” Joe said.
“Why are we here again?” Bob asked.
“I don’t remember,” Joe said.
“Hey, guys,” Adam said, walking into the room.
“How did you do that?” Joe asked.
“Do what?” Adam said.
“Talk and perform an action at the same time?” Joe said.
Adam shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“So you say,” Joe said.
“Right,” Adam said. “Anyway, what are you guys doing?”
“I don’t know about Joe,” Bob said, “but I was about to kill myself.”
HOLY SHIT MOMMY JUST FUCKING MAKE IT STOP.
Tension breaker. Had to be done.
We good here? Cool. Moving on.
As I said, this is my own example, though it’s closely modeled after the exact structure as the book in question. The actual scene goes on for several more pages, by which point I’d given up listening to the audio version.
There’s a popular writing tip that advises writers to avoid overuse of synonyms for “said” when employing dialogue attribution, or “tags.” Sure, there are a few others you can sprinkle in–asked, replied, answered to list three common ones–but otherwise? Many writing coaches tell their charges to refrain from straying too far afield with this sort of thing. The thinking is that “said” tends to fade into the background as you read. You all but ignore it.
This is less often the case when you’re stumbling over tags like “exclaimed” or “protested” or “declared” or one fan favorite, “ejaculated.”
Yes, you read that right.
Generally speaking, it’s a good guideline to follow. “Said” is nice and simple, everybody gets it, and we move on.
That said (See what I did there?), I guess you can overuse the thing. My little bit up above is a rather annoying example of that, as was the actual, honest-to-goodness published book I used as a template. Perhaps if I’d been just reading the print version, it wouldn’t have stood out, but for the audio? The repeated use of “said” along with the regimented delivery of the writing itself made it so much more obvious.
I suppose the fact that I wasn’t impressed with the audiobook reader’s rather straightforward reading of the text–no accents or other inflections given to the different characters, and so on–only made matters worse. I was loathing this book by the end of the third chapter, which is when I officially gave up on the audiobook version. I’m not quite ready to jettison the print version, but my guard’s up, now.
So, here’s the question: Is the old “Stick with ‘said'” writer tip still valid? I think so, at least for the most part. It’s okay to deviate every so often, but just don’t go crazy exclaiming and mumbling and…yes…ejaculating all over the place. It’s just rude…especially that last one. Ew, and all that.
More importantly, I think this example and the book from which I modeled it serve as a reminder that as writers, it behooves us to read our stories aloud as part of our editing/polishing activities before delivering a manuscript to our editors. For one thing, this helps us realize where we might be missing words, or repeating words, or whether we’ve constructed a particular sentence the way my cat builds Lego houses. It also helps us to hear where our writing may have fallen into a pattern or rut, like the one outlined above, rather than varying sentence length and structure to keep the reader’s eyes (or ears, if it’s an audiobook) from glazing over. And hey! You might even be able to change up those dialogue tags, every once in a while.
“Anybody else run into this?” Dayton prompted.