The Art of Speaking

By Hugh Ashton

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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.

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3 Responses to “The Art of Speaking”

  • Michael

    Awsome point, and so obvious now I think about it – thank you!

  • Isabella

    Urg, I need to send this to my beta. She screams (figuratively) at me for not using words like ‘exclaimed’ and ‘shouted’ and puts frowny faces next to all the ‘saids’ and tag-less dialogue.

  • Chelcie

    Wow- My inner voice needs a serious pep talk about putting better dialouge into my stories -.-‘

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