A Promotion Reminder and a Dissertation entitled "To Say or Not to Say"
Now then, I would like to discuss the issue of whether 'tis nobler to say something, or to utter it, or perhaps to state it. Is it better to ask or to inquire? Bring adverbs into the equation, and the field becomes open to even greater argument. The simple fact is that every writer and every reader, too, has their own opinion about it. This is mine.
Examining a novel as if it were a cadaver, we'll say the plot is the core skeletal structure; the prose can be the flesh that covers it all; but dialogue becomes the muscles that hold it all together. Everything else is vital, but it's the dialogue that does the real work. It's the life and vigor of the story, the human element that most enraptures readers. It's one of my rules in writing that dialogue should always be able to stand on its own; it doesn't always need to, and there are times when it just plain can't, but if at all possible dialogue should literally speak for itself.
It is my opinion, however, that sometimes say is the right choice and sometimes it is not. Sometimes another verb should be used--or sometimes, none at all!
One example of a use for a verb other than say is merely to emphasize the tone of the dialogue. Even if the words sounds like a shout, s/he shouted serves as an underline. But the verb should be carefully selected. In this case, shout implies a different tone than cry, exclaim, or bellow might.
I usually prefer a powerful verb to an adverb in such cases, but again, it's a matter of discretion. Sometimes the one is more prudent, sometimes the other. And here's another instance in whic they can both be very useful. Every now and then a quotation arises where the words are too few or too simple or otherwise inexpressive; where a human voice would add a meaning the words do not contain. A human inflects their speech in a way that is difficult, though not impossible, to suggest in written dialogue; sometimes a telling verb or an adverb is the best way to add that inflection.
And then there's another method that is often used to avoid the s/he said entirely. But I have often seen this abused. If the movement is not significant in some way, if it serves no other purpose than to tell us who is speaking, it is rendered entirely meaningless and makes the writer look lazy. If the character strokes his mustache or twirls a finger in her hair, it indicates the speaker with the extra purpose of physical expression. But when a character removes their shoe to get at an itch during the conversation--sure, it's a natural action, but it's nothing more than a trivial, bothersome distraction. Some actions tell enough alone, some could use an adjective or some other form of additional description, and some should just be avoided. Again, it's all dictated by discretion.
On the whole, when I only have two characters speaking, I prefer to drop anything outside the dialogue, unless where emphasis or definition is prudent, or when a character makes an expressive movement. When you get three or more characters talking together, of course, it takes a degree of dexterity to juggle them all clearly and effectively.
The last point I would like to make becomes a part of that aforementioned rule, that dialogue should always be able to stand on its own. Not only does this mean that dialogue should speak with its own tone, but with the tone of the character. His or her "voice" should be audible when they speak. It can never be solely relied upon to identify a character, but the character should nonetheless be identifiable by the words they say.
And sometimes, I think, the very purpose of verbs or adverbs is artistic embellishment. Far too often modern authors concentrate too much on the functions of words, and not enough on their beauty. We forget that writing is an art. There is a science behind every art, but we must remember that the science is the supplement, not the focus. The gears in the mechanism of writing do not turn for their own sake, but for the sake of the art
I can think of no better way to phrase it than in the very words of Dolores Douglas, of The Second Death.
"It’s balance," Mrs. Douglas observed, "that people need to find. Balance in all things, I think, is what we lack the most."
Perhaps you observed my verb choice. I used it for embellishment but also to lend a subtle inflection to the tone of her words.
"It’s balance," Mrs. Douglas said, "that people need to find. Balance in all things, I think, is what we lack the most."
Didn't that sound a little different?
One thing that, when it comes to dialogue, I shall never forgive is this:
"This is ridiculous," he smiled.
The mental image evoked compels me to smile myself. With the primary exceptions being door-to-door salespeople, used car dealers, and politicians, few people talk through a smile. Even if your character is a ventriloquist, just don't go there.
Sincerely, Nuile: Lunatic Wordsmith