Post Traumatic Forum Memories, Informed Ignoramuses and Dialogue Guidelines

Everyone has a moment in their lives that they just can’t forget. For me, it’s about grammar. Now I am not talking about first kisses or umbilical cords here, but the little things that keep us awake at night, things we wish we could have said to defend our egos. We can all remember a cruel joke made at our expense, or a rude comment, or some awful truth someone pointed out about us that sticks like a thorn in our hearts, like the time my brother snidely pointed out I misspelled karatie (I spent the next 30 years correcting his tortured spelling). Internet forums are breeding grounds for these kinds of memories. It’s no wonder kids are killing themselves left and right. The anonymity of social media gives the jerks of the world free reign to be jerks. As a child, I was bullied a lot. Between fourth and eighth grade, humiliation was a daily routine, and without any friends, and extremely negligent parents, it’s a wonder I didn’t jump into the dough mixer at my father’s restaurant. Maybe if we had had Facebook, I would not be here today. But what really got me through those tough days was a sense of personal worth, rooted entirely in the belief that I was destined for greatness. No matter what the kids said about me, it didn’t matter, because I could create worlds. This is why I fell apart in 2004. The bullying I endured, on a fantasy fiction forum, was not directed at me per se, but at my writing, and my book, The Dark Age of Enya. This wasn’t any honest criticism, either, because none of the people involved had the book to read. Only one copy was sent out to one reviewer. The rest focused on the prologue which I had posted on my website. I was compared to “guy who copies Lord of the Rings” which is ridiculous, considering I am not much of a Tolkien fan, and my book had a lot more in common with the works of Homer and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The other thing that sticks in my mind has to do with grammar and dialogue. After giving my prologue a cursory glance, someone informed me that,

The problem with your writing is that nobody “says” anything. When writing dialogue, the only word you should ever use is “said”.

I call these types of people informed ignorant* (coined phrase) and there is nothing more insidious or infuriating on Internet forums. Worse than complete ignoramuses, which you can at least ignore, informed ignoramuses are people with a kernel of knowledge, people who, after reading a book about writing or history or science, delude themselves into believing that they have become experts in the field. That I had a BA degree in English and read a dozen books on grammar and style was irrelevant, this guy had read a book and was qualified to school me. He even went so far as to offer this example,

“Hello,” said Bob.

“Hello,” said Jane.

Don’t use words like replied, answered, questioned, remarked, murmured, etc., those are all incorrect, he said. Good writers should only use the word said. Of course, this is total bullshit, and any writer with an ounce of experience could have told him so. Hell, you don’t even have to be an English major, just pick up any random book and flip to any page.

From a Storm of Swords:

page 217:
“Say it,” Ygritte urged.
” . . . me?” finished Mance Rayder.

page 288:
“Evenfall!” she shouted as her plow horse thundered by.
“Was,” Jaime agreed.

page 480:
“Not for long,” her son promised.
“Battles,” muttered Robb . . .

These took only minutes to find, and if the great George R.R. Martin can use words like urged, finished, shouted, agreed, promised and muttered, so can I. The thing is, I know where this critic was coming from. What he had read as a guideline, he took as an absolute rule, but there are no absolutes in writing. Good style is all about nuance. It is true that the best word to use for dialogue is said, because it is the least distracting, but the same goes for any word. If you are constantly digging out your thesaurus looking for the most obscure synonyms, you’re going to alienate your readers and pull them away from your story. Sometimes the best word is the most common.

But even if this is what he had meant to say, “Hey, buddy, you should really just stick to said most of the time,” he’d still be wrong, and an informed ignoramus. Why? Well, for all you aspiring writers out there, I am going to let you in on a little secret. When writing dialogue, it’s better to avoid “to say” verbs altogether. The only thing the reader has to know is who is speaking, and this can easily be accomplished by starting a new paragraph every time you switch speakers. Example:

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

If it’s unclear who is speaking to whom, or if you want to add vividness to the scene, consider this,

Bob watched as night spread over the sky. Orion’s belt was beginning to emerge like a string of diamonds overhead. The last bit of sunlight dipped below the horizon when Jane came through the front door. He waved her over. “Hello.”

She sat beside him on the porch swing, staring into the heavens. “Hello.”

Of course, this is only a guideline, a suggestion, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an informed ignoramus. I only wish I had, at the time, told him as much.

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