Forbidden Fruit: The Great Debate of Said Bookisms

So, this past Tuesday I am reading a piece from my latest work to the members of one of two writer’s circles I kind of frequent. This piece, I feel was quite strong – one of the few scenes I’d written in a long time that I am truly proud of.

At the point where I read a particular line, “What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed under his breath, one of the guys next to me withdraws his laptop from his bag and boots up his word processor.

My first thought is, “Oh, shit! This is boring! I totally lost him!” but I shrug off the anxiety that is a writer’s bruised ego, and finish reading.

After a few compliments on my piece, the fellow beside me says, “Look at this.” He gestures my attention to his laptop screen. There, written in the centre of the word processor is one of the quotes from my piece:

“What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed.

I look at him, confused. This guy is a script doctor and teleplay writer for some pretty major productions. He is kind of a big deal in the TV industry, and I totally respect the guy, because he’s been around the block and offers really intelligent critical advice. Anything with that quote could be wrong. Internally, a number of thoughts bash around, like tiny metal pinballs in a cheaply-made plastic hand-held from when my dad was a kid.

Was it because I wrote “What the hell’s A matter,” as oppose to “what the hell’s THE matter”?

Was the subject-verb agreement twisted into stark amateur oblivion?

Literally anything could have been wrong with that sentence.

“Hiss that,” he instructs me.

Hiss that? I blink. The quote, he means.

“Hiss that,” he says again.

Of course, I’m dumbstruck, and my inner introvert decides to make its ugly presence around the table, uttering an embarrassed, unintelligible sound, not unlike “Durrr … uhhh?”

“You can’t,” he tells me. “You can’t physically hiss that. There aren’t enough sibilants to.”

He was right, there was no possible way anybody could utter that sentence as though a snake would. A snake wouldn’t be able to utter that sentence as though a snake would. But that wasn’t my intention when I wrote the piece of dialogue.

But if J-school has taught me one thing, it’s to see an angle from all sides. Today’s post is not written out of spite or vindication to appease whatever broken ego I have about my unpublished works of pulp horror and fantasy. As I said, I deeply respect the fellow at my group, and take whatever words of wisdom he has with enthusiasm. I am, by no means, as temperamental as an Aaron Sorkin or a Harlan Ellison (nor as successful – but one can dream!). I am merely curious, and am willing to poke the bull with a red-ribboned spearhead.

To me, when a character hisses a piece of dialogue, that character says those words with a harsh whisper, laced with venom. That’s what I imagine, and that’s how it was supposed to come across in the scene that I read to the group.

But clearly, that hadn’t been the outcome, and as a result, the nine or ten of us transitioned to an interesting discussion of dialogue tags (aka, said bookisms) – he said/she said, vs. creative descriptions, such as demanded, inquired – and hissed.

It wasn’t the first time our writers circle had had this discussion, nor was it the first time I had been in the middle of such a debate with a group of writers. What is kosher among the world of fiction? The basic “said,” or something with a little flair? It’s a question, along with others, I find often asked by fledgling writers who want to be more than writers. Writers who want to kick down the door of a traditional publisher and get their name in official print right then and there. The same writers, I find most of the time, who attend more writing-related conferences, seminars, and workshops than they do actually sit down and WRITE.

I’ve read and been told that to end any line of dialogue with anything other than “said” or “asked” is deemed amateurish on the author’s part – that to do so is a mortal sin that will forever chain a fledgling writer to an editor’s slush pile (the same goes for the use of adverbs and adjectives).

The argument here is that using descriptors such as “yelled”, “exclaimed”, “whispered”, etc. take away from the strength of the dialogue, and thusly break the reader’s flow of immersion (who would otherwise unconsciously skip over “said” and “asked”).

Whether this is true or not, I guess, really depends on the reader. But in the long and the short of it, how accurate of a notion is the above? As literary bloggers Anne M. Marble and W.H. Dean point out in their own differing opinions on the matter, many renowned published authors litter their works with said bookisms.

In her article for Writing-World, THE USE AND ABUSE OF DIALOGUE TAGS, Marble writes: “In most cases, the word ‘said’ would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue. … These words make it sound as if you have fallen in love with your thesaurus.”

She continues with, “If the dialogue is strong enough, ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ will do. If the dialogue is not strong enough, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said bookisms to bolster it.”

But again, on what grounds do these opinion stem? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt distracted when a character “hollered” or “sang” or “murmured” something. In fact, I felt drawn deeper into the intensity or emotion conveyed on the page – and as an author, it’s something I wish to replicate for my own readership.

In journalism, “said” and “says” just makes sense in the hard news world, as current events should be reported as clear and concise as possible. In J-school, I was always taught to leave the fancy descriptors at home, unless I was writing a magazine feature. To write that Joe Blow “feels” something, or that Joe Blow “thinks” something, is to assume Joe Blow feels or thinks something when maybe he doesn’t – and if he does actually say he feels or thinks, to write that Joe Blow said/says he feels or thinks.

In his article for Plato’s Head, DEFENDING SAID BOOKISMS? “SAY IT AIN’T SO!” HE ASSEVERATED, Dean writes, “Sixty years ago … it was common to find more colourful dialogue tags and it’s not entirely uncommon today. And I would argue that it’s still not a defect; the defect is the not the choice of words other than said, it’s the misuse of words other than said.”

Now, there’s something that makes sense to me: the misusage of creative dialogue tags, versus creative dialogue tags themselves. Dean uses the example of a character INSISTING they are ill – which makes no sense, unless said (ha) character is in an argument in regards to their state of health.

Marble goes on to write about her disdain towards writers who use verbs such as laugh, grimace, cry, or frown as dialogue tags, as it is physically impossible for a person to “frown” or “laugh” words out of their mouths.

Here, I understand where she’s coming from, as this is one notorious finger wiggle-waggle I used to include at end of quoted dialogues (Heiress: The Master of Monsters is riddled with these). I’ve since evolved to …”Said with a laugh” or “said with a sneer”, but in my honesty, I don’t think it really matters all that much.

Of my beloved “hiss”, Marble writes, “The big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is ‘hissed.’ It’s used a lot, but quite often, it’s used where it’s unwelcome. We’ve all seen this dialogue tag abused. For example: ‘Get out,’ she hissed. OK, you try it — hiss that line. Something’s missing — the sibilants.”

She brings up the exact point my friend and mentor of the local writers circle mentioned. However, in my research for this blog post, I decided to root through some dictionaries, which led me to an interesting revelation:

1. to make or emit a sharp sound like that of the letter s prolonged, as a snake does, or as steam does when forced under pressure through a small opening.
2. to express disapproval or contempt by making this sound: The audience hissed when the actor forgot his lines.

verb (used with object)
3. to express disapproval of by hissing: The audience hissed the controversial play.
4. to silence or drive away by hissing (usually followed by away, down, etc.): They hissed down the author when he tried to speak.
5. to utter with a hiss.

All right. And how about a list of synynoms via thesaurus?:

Part of Speech: noun
Definition: buzzing sound; jeer
Synonyms: Bronx cheer, boo, buzz, catcall, contempt, derision, hoot, sibilance, sibilation

“What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed.

The use of “hiss” is, admittedly so, a prime example of Dean’s misuse of word choice when it comes to said bookisms. My friend and mentor is right: “You can’t hiss that.” Literally, anyway. But metaphorically, of course you can. And that was the sole intention behind my use of the word.

Does the use of the word make me an amateur? Maybe.

Does the use of the word evoke an emotional painting for my reader? Yes.

And that’s what matters.

Taking a break from writing this post to have dinner with my parents, my dad told me something that perfectly summed up what I feel is the point of this entire entry: “The sole purpose of writing fiction is reader engagement. You write to entertain your reader, and whatever rules you have to break to do that shouldn’t matter, as long as you engage your reader.”

So should I worry so much about “said” vs. “exclaim”, or even “hiss”, or should I worry about telling a worthwhile narrative that draws people in and captures both their imaginations and their emotions?

Editors and literary critics who are too concerned over the misuse of dialogue tags (and even those who stress over the use of adjectives and adverbs) need to do some re-evaluating. If you’re going to slash thin hairs over “said” vs. “exclaim” in lieu of whether or not you have a great story that is otherwise well-written, someone needs to slap you some serious vacation time.

If you’ve found my blog as an up and coming author, or someone who is curious about the life of a writer, I’m not here to tell you how to put words on a page. Talk to some, and they’ll say I’m not even qualified to do so, because I’ve only published less than a handful of stories on the vastness of the Internet, not including a couple of school weeklies.

However, one thing I’ve come to learn in my literary journey as a novelist, journalist, a blogger, and even as just a human being, and that I hope to pass onto any possible reader of my website, is that no matter what you write, no matter what you say – hell, no matter what you do in general – people are going to compare you, criticize you, revile you, and maybe a thin sliver will even revere you. Those who mind, don’t matter – and those who matter, don’t mind.

But what I am getting at is this: Do you think John Grisham, Joanne Rowling, Stephen King, or even John Tolkien worried about grammar, adjectives, or creative dialogue tags? No. They wrote. They wrote, they worked their guts out, and they proved themselves through true effort and humble evolution. Even if some say they are not the most perfect of literary masters, it doesn’t matter, because the people who complain are not the people who they write for – and the same applies to anything.

Don’t worry so much about the rules. Rules, for the most part, are meant to be broken, analyzed, and remodeled – then broken, again. To be a writer is to express yourself fully, raw. To be an artist is to express yourself, fully, raw. Not to say that you should throw away all of the tools and resources that are available to help you evolve in your craft. I cannot enough stress the importance to read, read, read and to write, write, write.


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