“A New Post!” she squawked!

29 Jan

To have said or not to have said, that is the question. If there is one topic bound to get writers arguing it’s that most basic of issues – just how do you link speech with a speaker.

At first glance, “Hello,” said Fred, seems obviously the way to go, perhaps with the occasional variant when emphasis is necessary, such as shouted or whispered or hissed, or maybe replied or responded when they’re answering a question. But, a dozen saids one after another can become a bit tedious, certainly for the creativity of the writer and probably for the reader. So, we start to change things up. People no longer say things, they say them with an adverb, or they start to do things other than saying when speaking; they go from relatively straightforward exclaiming, through the unfortunately snigger-inducing ejaculated, to the outright oddities of squawking and its fellows. At first, such injections of novelty look good, but all-too-easily, they can take over until conversation is replaced by a squawking, trilling, expostulating hubbub. Which is why you will find a lot of people who stridently deplore the use of anything beyond the simple said.

They have a point, of course. It is easy to go too far. But, banishing all adverbs and unusual terms from writing about speech can all too easily make it bland. Sometimes you really do want to make it clear that a character has squawked their reply or suddenly exclaimed something or said it really fast. Yet, do so and some pundits will leap forward to criticise. What to do?!

Well, as I’ve emphasised before, the key to good writing is that what you write and the way in which you write it is there for a purpose. Certain styles of writing and types of story lend themselves more readily to more florid descriptions of conversation than others and knowing whether what you’re writing falls into one of those categories can help you decide where to draw the line. Equally, knowing if the type of story you are writing falls prone to overuse of such writing means you can rein your tendencies in and avoid being dismissed as yet more purple prose.

In particular, the question of how to designate conversation rests upon just how much the characters talk in your story. If there is very little speech, stick to simply writing said unless you absolutely have to write something else, as a succession of exclaimed, yelped and such like will stand out as ridiculous in such a short space. A story with a lot of conversation is more likely to demand some variety, if only because your characters will occasionally change the manner of their speech (a novel of sedate, politely conversational characters waffling on is very likely to be deadly dull, after all). But, it is with such large amounts of conversation to handle that you risk overdoing it.

So, what to do? Well, the obvious thing is to ask yourself if you need to signpost that someone is speaking and who they are. Normally, you will be using speech marks to designate speech, so you don’t need to add ‘said Bob’ solely to confirm that someone is speaking. Of course, you do want to let the reader know who is speaking, but you shouldn’t need to do this too often in simple back and forth conversation unless it goes on for a long time and you need to make sure the reader hasn’t lost track of who is actually speaking at a given point. Even with three or four characters, you don’t necessarily need to signpost every time one speaks if the conversation is clearly structured, for example, if one character asks another a question, you don’t necessarily need to add “she replied” if it’s clear in context who was ask and that they are replying. But, yes, that does leave longer conversations with multiple participants and conversations involving larger groups and sometimes you may just have to bite the bullet and go with a lot of saids or their replacements, regardless of anyone else’s view.

Yet, there is another alternative. Well-written speech can act as its own signpost without the need for any designation. If characters sound different to each other you won’t need to keep telling the reader who is speaking as they will be able to tell purely from the words used and the way they’re used (although, as with long conversations, the occasional reminder is useful to make sure they don’t get in a muddle). Equally, a character’s name can be used in the conversation itself such as “Hello, Jim, how are you?” “Oh, not bad, Bill, not bad.” and there are otherwise to signpost a speaker, for example “I was asking you!” he said, pointing at Joe – leading us into Joe’s reply.

Equally, when it comes to how someone is speaking, it is often possible to show rather than tell. You might use CAPITALS for shouting or insert – dashes – to – simulate – someone – wh0 – doesn’t – speak – smoothly. Exclamation marks and question marks mean that you don’t need to mention every exclamation or question. Italics can lend a subtle emphasis to a word. Changing the grammar can change the emphasis or strength of speech. Also you can describe the character’s voice or actions in order to show the state they’re in rather than just telling the reader, such as “It’s not fair…” he said, his voice rising with his temper, rather than “It’s not fair…” he said, angrily.

Just whatever you do, don’t slavishly add adverbs in an attempt to spice up your writing or delete them because someone told you they were wrong. Think about what you are writing and what you hope to achieve and use the best tools you have to achieve it.


One Response to ““A New Post!” she squawked!”

  1. theparisreviewblog January 29, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    I love the first line of this post. So creative! Also, as someone with a literary blog, I really appreciate the insight here.

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