Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
– W. Somerset Maugham
Do you cringe at always/never/only advice for writers like I do? Advice like this butts up against two of life’s most important guidelines:
- Never say ‘never,’ and never say ‘always.’
- Great things are usually great because they broke the rules and did something new.
So, in true myth-busting fashion, let’s put a few of these dicta under the microscope and talk about why they don’t work.
Myth #1: Only use ‘said’ for dialogue tags
You hear a few different rules along these lines, usually ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are the winners, though sometimes ‘answered’ makes the list.
This advice exists because dialogue tags can act as a crutch. When you want to put a hint of laughter in someone’s voice and can’t get the line just right, you can throw a tag on it. “Well, I wouldn’t put the paint can back in the pantry with no lid on it!” she laughed.
It’s the easy way to communicate something that can be conveyed with more subtlety, and when authors go too far with it, they really go too far. Writers who fall in love with dialogue tags have their characters screaming, wailing, hissing, whispering, and mumbling, often when simply saying would do. Some authors even have lists of exciting tags they can sub in once a piece is written, to give it more flair. Often, this isn’t necessary, stops authors reworking their dialogue, and reads like mad libs.‘Said’ and ‘asked’ aren’t the only option for dialogue tags, but they are the best default.Click To Tweet
Despite this, using only one or two dialogue tags isn’t the answer. Repetition is inherently weakening to writing, because the reader can’t help but pick up on patterns, and patterns without a point feel artificial. Any word you use too frequently detracts from your writing, and you’ll often need to chain dialogue tags to keep things clear.
A selection of tags that feel random is no good, but moderation makes more sense than complete abstention. One great tip is to be sure that you’re not falling back on any one unusual tag to often. If you want to make somebody whisper, go for it. But when you’ve finished your full draft, do a search for the word ‘whisper’ and make sure every time you use it, it really counts.
Likewise, try not to force an unusual tag. Ever find yourself reaching for the thesaurus as a way of embellishing your dialogue tags? Don’t do it. Use the thesaurus to help you remember the word you wanted anyway, not to find alternative words that amount to variety-for-the-sake-of-variety. If variety is needed for its own sake, alter sentence structure first. This can be done by:
- Dropping your dialogue tags altogether. If it’s clear who’s speaking, delete the tags.
- Replacing tags with description. If you can show a person’s tone of voice through their actions, there’s no need for a dialogue tag. “I think…” Ellen swallowed. “I think I need some space.”
- Crafting stellar dialogue. If a reader is engrossed in the dialogue itself, their eyes will skim right over the tags.
Myth #2: Never use passive voice
Warnings against the passive voice come from sources as reputable as Strunk & White and George Orwell himself.
This advice exists because the passive voice is generally the dullest way to recount an event. ‘It was recommended to us by Susan that we file our taxes with an LLC this year’ vs. ‘Susan recommended that we file our taxes with an LLC this year.’ Clunky, dull, and lacking momentum.
If I say, ‘This watch was given to me by my grandfather’, I take the emphasis off of my grandfather and put it on the watch. ‘Research was conducted’ takes credibility away from the claim because the speaker isn’t saying who conducted the research. If it’s their batty Aunt Lucille, I’d like to know that. If the speaker includes that information in passive form, it’s ugly: ‘Research was conducted by Aunt Lucille.
In fact, Jensen, Schmitz & Thoma’s Modern Composition and Rhetoric says, ‘He who robs his thoughts of action robs them of half their life, for life is action and readers like to think in terms of action.’
So, yes, passive voice isn’t great, but that’s because it’s a speciality tool. Most of the time, you won’t need it, but to remove it from your repertoire entirely is like saying ‘never use a ball-peen hammer’. Sometimes, that‘s exactly what you need.Passive voice is a specialist tool - you won't need it often, but it has its place.Click To Tweet
This might be because the subject is unknown: ‘The painting was obviously stolen.’ You lose power and clarity when you substitute a fake subject: ‘Somebody obviously stole the painting.’ The ‘somebody’ isn’t obvious; that’s exactly the point.
Or it might be to protect the subject’s privacy: ‘Mistakes were made; all we can do is move on.’ This sentence protects the subject, as opposed to: ‘Bob made some mistakes; all we can do is move on.’
Or it might be because the subject is irrelevant: ‘The new power plant will be built sometime in 2020.’ Very few people care who is going to do the actual building of the plant.
Or it might be because the point is to generalize: ‘Children shouldn’t be left alone in cars.’ This sentence is a rule to live by, rather than the strangely accusatory ‘You shouldn’t leave children alone in cars.’
Or, sometimes, it might be because emphasizing the object is the whole point. ‘The project was funded entirely by donors.’ or ‘I don’t want to be humiliated.’
If you’re writing mainly in the passive voice then, yeah, cut it out immediately, but don’t be afraid to bust it out when you have a specific need.
Myth #3: Aim for realistic dialogue
The advice in and of itself isn’t the problem. The problem is when people take it too literally and try to emulate real-world speech, verbatim, on the page. Dialogue should feel realistic, but if you actually write how people speak, it’ll be unbearable.
Real life conversations have a lot of fluff. People beat around the bush, include unnecessary details, ramble, add nonverbal vocalizations at high-frequency intervals, and in general talk too much. In real life: no big deal, so long as everyone in the conversation is happy. On the page: disaster. Cut it down to the bare necessities.Dialogue should feel realistic without recreating real speech.Click To Tweet
When you hear that advice to go sit in a public place and eavesdrop, the idea is to get ideas, not a transcript. If you’re trying to write a teenage character, then yes, go to a teenager’s natural habitat and pick up some tips. But if you transcribe the whole affair and splice it into your novel, somebody’s going to suffer.
While you don’t want all the ‘um’s and ‘ah’s of real-life speech in your dialogue, other nonverbal cues can greatly contribute to the believability of your characters’ conversations. Consider the ways people’s posture, facial expressions, pauses, gestures, eye contact, tone, etc. contribute to what they’re saying and weave these elements into your dialogue.
Play the skeptic
Advice is provisional. When you hear it, ask yourself: what are the exceptions? In what contexts does this advice work and where might it break down? If I were to break that rule, on purpose, what creative results could I produce?
There are a few more myths I’d like to scrutinize in a follow-up article, but in the meantime, let me hear from you in the comments. What bad advice have you heard? What advice are you unsure of? What advice do you routinely ignore?
Hungry for some advice to deconstruct? Check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words for some tips to chew over.