The Art of Speaking
The art of reporting speech in writing, that is. There are a few writers whom I really admire for their skill in dialog: John le Carré and Elmore Leonard. Two very different writers, but their work contains a common element; the ability to place a character in social context with just a few words. Le Carré’s characters, almost as soon as they open their mouths, position themselves accurately within the complex British class system, and Leonard’s characters likewise indicate their origins through their words.
In many ways, Elmore Leonard’s skill is greater, as one of his rules for writing dialog is not to use dialect when reporting characters’ speech. Other rules he lays down for writers are not to use adverbs when reporting characters’ dialog (in one of his books, one character is herself a novelist, and claims to have written novels “full of rape and adverbs”), and not to use any word other than “said” to describe the act of speech by a character.
Maybe this comes from his experiences as a scriptwriter, where the actor is given the words and told to interpret them. At the initial stage of the script, only the words are provided – the director and actors then agree on the interpretation. This can only be done effectively, though, if the words themselves provide the meaning, which means the words you put into characters’ mouths have to be accurate; exactly what that character would say in that situation.
Take this exchange from Leonard:
“Man, you knew it, didn’t you? You look at this shit laying on the bottom, you knew it wasn’t gonna go off. You run the price up on me with nothing to worry about.”
Chris said, “That’s why people like me like to get hired by people like you.”
(Freaky Deaky, Elmore Leonard)
See, no adverbs, no “complained” or “whined” for the first speaker. Just the words, ma’am — and they work so well with no ornamentation. You know the tone of voice of both speakers – you can place the sort of person speaking, and you can even picture their relative positions and bodily attitudes while they speak.
I sometimes break Elmore’s adverb rule, but since learning about it, my adverb quotient has decreased radically, and so has my use of words like “exclaimed”, “screamed”, “protested”, as I’ve learned to use my inner ear more to listen to my characters’ conversations.
Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!
Keep learning! Browse the Fiction Writing category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!