If You Can’t Walk, Crawl… but don’t said

I’ve spent the last week on the way to, at, and coming back from a writing conference. (Still not home yet.) I have a bunch of notes, even more presentations I need to go back and catch up on the recorded videos, and a few to mourn making the best decision available with limited time.

(I do not regret looking at a friend I only see every few years, and saying “I can always catch that panel on video. I can’t catch lunch with you on video. Don’t worry about it.” Even though it turns out that one wasn’t recorded… still the right call!)

But I have a little oxygen problem. Namely, the altitude and my lungs were not friends… by the end of the conference, I was somewhat acclimatized, but the travel to and from went over 7,000 feet altitude, and that wasn’t friendly at all. (Thank G-d and capitalism for supplemental oxygen in a can.)

So what do I do when I want to make with the words, and the brain is working on three out of six cylinders? I brainstorm. I can’t quite call it outlining, though those of you accustomed to such exercise are welcome to do so. I think of it as writing down the POV of the next chapter, and then listing out the pieces that will go in, like finding the edge pieces or any really unique bits of a jigsaw puzzle. Snatches of conversation. Objective for the chapter. Bit of scenery.

If I can, I then assemble them. This method worked out to about a completed chunk of WIP every three days.

But I couldn’t even fully manage that some days, especially when overnighting in Flagstaff, AZ. What then? I read through the WIP, and whenever something stick out at me, I do minor bits of editing. It keeps me in the story, and allows a pass for better description and dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue, one of the interesting bits of advice given this week was in a panel on writing for audiobooks, by a gent whose books have won a fair number of Audies. We all know that repetition of words is an irritant to the reader and listener – it’s why we take care not to repeat a word or phrase repeatedly in a sentence, paragraph, or page, because the repetition is… Yeah, you’re already making stabby motions with your pen, aren’t you?

But we make an exception for the word “said”, believing it invisible to the reader. And because readers skim, it often is. But because audio listeners can’t skim – every word is delivered at the exact same pace – and because they’re getting exact readings, no abridged, the repetition of “he said” “she said” “Jack said” “She said” “John said” “Jane said” is like a constant dripping faucet of torture to the listener.

This author noted that his first book used the word “said” 800 times.

The most recent epic fantasy? 150.

There’s still a place and time for it, especially in complex conversations between several people. But even there, he replaces a lot of the opportunity for “he said” with an action beat. “Jack tipped his chair back and studied the rest of the board.”

And in conversations between two people? If their styles of speech are different enough, you can drop a lot of dialogue tags and the audience can still follow along just fine.

What say you?

17 comments

  1. I was listening to Wheel of Time for a bit a couple years ago, which was when I first noticed the phenomenon. In group discussions, I actually appreciate the “saids” as a listener, because it wasn’t always clear who was talking.

    The action tags work. I’m wondering how The Expanse books do in audio. There, the authors have a paragraph of someone’s actions, gestures, whatever, and then a new paragraph with a “S/he said.” I thought that was a bit of padding, myself, but it maintained complete clarity in the written version. I didn’t listen to them, so don’t know the effect in audio.

  2. In drama, you see the people delivering the lines — no dialogue tags required. In radio plays, different actors voice different parts, and again no dialogue tags are required. When these works originate as written works, the derivative forms are referred to as “adaptations”.

    An audiobook read by a single person is a different medium, and needs its own rules. But so is a book. Modifying a book to make the audiobook’s dialogue tags less obtrusive may not be the most effective thing to do to the book itself.

    Certainly substituting an action beat may serve both media well, but surely not for every instance. There’s an argument to be made about distinguishing between a simple “read” audiobook and an “adaptation” audiobook, and the market may not yet be there. As authors pushing our own work, we can probably churn out both versions/editions as we go, if we feel strongly enough about the differences and want to control our own audiobooks. If so, best to do it before publication of the written work, in case some or all of the audiobook-motivated changes improve the original, too.

    Note: I’ve only done one audiobook, “read by author”. It’s not an investment that’s high on my list at this point. None of my (few) auditors complained about dialogue tags (or anything else).

  3. I’ve found multiplicitous “saids” annoying with audiobooks as well, but consider that the narrator can identify characters by inflecting his voice, but the author can’t do that on the printed page.

    I was taught in school to *always* use “said” when writing. Nowadays I think it’s just lazy writing; most of the time an author should be able to structure a discussion so the speaker is easily identified. Sometimes it’s not practical; I have no problem with that. But just machine-gunning “saids” in there seems tacky nowadays.

    Of course, I’ve seen the “no saids” swing pretty far the other way, too. “‘Holy cow!’ Tom ejaculated.” and other structures are peculiar.

    1. There’s something to be said for the economy of a single trenchant word. “He insisted,” or “She demanded” aren’t too strange (see e.g., “ejaculated” to the truly peculiar) but can save a lot in “strident tones” or “whiny begging.”

    1. Particularly if you invent things for the characters to do. All actions should be significant.

      And shake up the sentence structure.

  4. A good friend of mine has written a fantasy novel (I’ve mentioned this a few times because I am super proud of him) and I’ve been helping him edit. One thing I did was make him cut 90% of “said”. Once you established who is speaking you don’t really need a lot of “said” or “replied ” and I think it breaks the rhythm. I encourage him to be more creative about his conversations.

  5. I have wrestled a lot with this, especially in ‘The Lone Star, the Tricolor, and the Swastika’ because a lot of scenes involve multiple people talking (leaders consulting with advisors, etc.)

    One way I found to reduce the population of ‘saids’ is to have one speaking character address another by name or title, i.e. “Yes, Prime Minister, …” or “How would you handle this, Admiral Stark?” The reader can then assume that the next person speaking is the one addresses in the previous sentence.

  6. Yep, the bane of our existence as writers, what ‘works’ in one format doesn’t in another… Grrr…

  7. Although I can usually make it plain who is speaking without specific tags, It irritates me when I am reading dialogue and lose track of who is saying what. This is especially problematic if there are three or more people in the conversation, so they need to be more carefully tagged than if there are only two. Even so, after about three or four lines of dialog, I find it useful to drop in a reminder of who is doing the speaking or who is being addressed. “Said” is the simplest version and I try to use it sparingly. But exclusive use of “said” tends to be monotonous, so I throw in the occasional variant or modifier, especially if it expresses something the speaker is feeling.

  8. Heh. It was indeed listening to the audio version of Mistborn that let me to be driven NUTS by the constant use of ” paused.”

    I do not think I would have noticed it half so much (or even minded) reading it in print form. But in audio…it drove me BONKERS. I haven’t finished the original Mistborn trilogy in part because of it, although I did listen to the later Alloy of Law books and noticed that Brandon Sanderson hardly used it at all–or at least not so constantly–so it evidently was something he moved away from. I’m not sure I notice ‘said’ nearly so much–possibly because it IS invisible to a large extent for me, even in audio. “Paused” was just different enough that it caught my ear in a way “said” would not have.

    (And don’t get me wrong–they are ALL good books, and reading the original trilogy is definitely on my to-read list, it’s just that I hadn’t noticed quirks like that until I listened to a book I had never read before. Interestingly, if it is a book I have previously read in print form, I am also less likely to notice odd repetition quirks. I suspect I only noticed in Mistborn because I was paying more attention than I would to a ‘familiar’ book I’d read numerous times before!!)

    1. I’m listing to the new audiobook for 2.4 (#7?) And haven’t really noticed that. I think the flow of dialog is pretty good.

      1. Oh yeah, by the time Alloy of Law rolled around, it was definitely gone. It may even have been gone or mostly gone by books 2 & 3 of the series. I haven’t read them yet–Alloy of Law and its sequels just happened to fill a particular reading catnip of mine, namely steampunk, and Sanderson was good at treating it as ‘same world, different story’ so it didn’t matter than I’d only read The Final Empire previously. 😀 I have the newest one coming in hardcover, and the audio will of course get added to my audible list.

        1. I LOVE the Wax and Wayne books. I read them first and reread them a bunch. I see them as steampunk westerns more than anything else. I read the first mistborn books once, but they aren’t really as much fun.

      2. (Also wanted to add: the flow of dialogue in Final Empire was fine…it was just that everyone ‘paused’ after speaking at least 3 times in a page, and in audio it really came to my attention. In print, I likely wouldn’t even have noticed! I loved the book…but I have learned that, save for nonfiction, it’s probably better I read the book in print and THEN listen to it on a ‘reread’ later. Then stuff like that doesn’t bug me.)

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