Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- Speaker Attributes II


I appreciate the comments from yesterday. Timothy Fish wrote that he doesn't like the SA rule. In referring to dialogue left by another commenter, he said, "By using the rule, we could tear apart what Amy graciously provided for examination, without even reading it. Many critiquers would do just that. Every said that is followed by an action beat would be marked with red ink. Does Oh, ha very ha. Sam dodged a pile of rubblish… flow better than Oh, ha very ha, Sam said, dodging a pile of rubblish…? They both get the point across. We could make an argument for either one, but it comes down to a matter of opinion. My personal preference is the second, but the rule would require us to go with the first, because we can."
Timothy's comment brings up an "exception" point I wanted to make today. Sometimes an SA can be used as a kind of action beat itself. For example, it can be used to connote a hesitation or a few seconds of time. Here's a line in the opening scene from my novel Amber Morn (releasing this week): "It's for T.J., she whispered. And she started to cry.

This opening scene jumps right into action, with Kent Wicksell and family preparing to embark on a criminal rampage in order to free Kent's third and youngest son from prison. His wife appears as hard-nosed as the husband and two sons. But in this line she almost breaks. I wanted to draw out this line in the middle of the fast action and argument. So--for reasons of rhythm--I added three words that I could had left out: ... she whispered. And... Those words add enough weight to the sentences to connote the passage of a second or two or time. And this slows things up just enough to emphasize the change in the character's emotion.

I probably use less SAs than many writers. But remember, I'm writing suspense. I need clean, punchy lines with no extra weight to slow action--except where I want it slowed. Your opinion on how often to SAs may well differ, and that's okay. My hope in discussing this "rule" is that writers who are used to adding SAs without thinking about them will become more cognizant of how they can best be used.

Here's the full passage from Amy that she left for editing (brave Amy!):
---------------
“This,” Halley said as he led her towards the alley the sound had come from, “is why the women you court never go anywhere with you more than once.”

“Oh, ha very ha,” Sam said, dodging a pile of rubbish that looked to have been there since the beginning of time...

“Hey, kid!” he yelled through cupped hands towards the roof, legs apart and – Halley thought – braced to jump to one side if necessary. “Mind where you’re dropping those things! You a East Canal Crawler or a South Streeter?”

A shaggy head poked out over the edge of the roof, silhouetted against the sky so that its features were nearly obscured, a tile in one hand and the other holding on to the guttering. “Like you’d see those East Canal bastards ‘round here! Whaddaya want?”

“I want to talk to Euan, if he’s about,” Sam shouted back, moving a hand to rest casually on his swordhilt. “Tell him that Tower scum Sam has come to see him.”

“Yeah? Alright,” the boy said, and lowered the tile back to the roof ...
------------------
My suggested edit for SAs:

“This,” Halley said as he led her towards the alley the sound had come from, “is why the women you court never go anywhere with you more than once.”

“Oh, ha very ha.” Sam dodged a pile of rubbish that looked to have been there since the beginning of time...

“Hey, kid!” He cupped his hands to yell toward the roof, legs apart and – Halley thought – braced to jump to one side if necessary. “Mind where you’re dropping those things! You a East Canal Crawler or a South Streeter?”

A shaggy head poked out over the edge of the roof, silhouetted against the sky so that its features were nearly obscured, a tile in one hand and the other holding on to the guttering. “Like you’d see those East Canal bastards ‘round here! Whaddaya want?”

“I want to talk to Euan, if he’s about.” Sam moved a hand to rest casually on his swordhilt. “Tell him that Tower scum Sam has come to see him.”

“Yeah? Alright.” The boy lowered the tile back to the roof ...

--------------------
I like the SA in the first sentence. It helps place emphasis on This by allowing that word to linger in our ears as the action takes place. But if we use an SA there, we really don't need it in the second line. In the third line, I think yell is better put into the action part of the sentence. Because we've emphasized the cupped-hand yell (plus that line has an exclamation point), we don't need to use shouted later. (Nor, by the way, do we need to use exclamation points with each of the following lines of dialogue. Too many of those are distracting. Once you've established that the characters are yelling at each other, the reader will get it.) And I see no need for the SA in the last line of dialogue. I cut the last sentence here, but it goes on for about four lines. Plenty long enough without adding an unnecessary SA.

So, out of five SAs I'd keep one. Again, the main thing is, I'm making deliberate decisions about when to use them and why.

In Amber Morn I faced a real challenge with dialogue. In one coffee shop are three bad guys and eleven hostages. The bad guys argue a lot, and the hostages have plenty to say themselves. That's a lot of people talking. How to keep them all straight to the reader without using an SA every line? In addition there are scenes in which the hostage negotiator is talking on the phone to the leader of the trio while also hearing background arguments in the cafe. Add on top of that someone in the negotiator's own office talking in his background and --yikes. That's a lot of people to keep straight. Meantime the action has to go pop-pop-pop, because that's the pace of the book. Too many SAs are going to slow down the action.

Tomorrow I'll post a few dialogue passages from Amber Morn to give examples of the three kinds of action beats we covered yesterday. Then we'll move on to the next "rule." In the meantime I invite any other opinions on SAs.

--------------------
Read Part 6

6 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

Arguments and similar dialogue is a place where I generally yank the SAs. As you mentioned, SAs are helpful in adding a pause to what a character is saying. In an argument, if one guy pauses, someone else will butt in. Some action beats, such as she jabbed him with her finger, help to heighten the tension, but others, such as he shifted his weight, may slow it down. In a three-way argument, or a multi-person scene, there are more things to consider.

I tend to think of these situations in terms of camera angle and field of view. As the scene intensifies, the camera must focus more tightly on the two primary combatants. Nothing else is important. As the tension decreases, the camera backs away, revealing a third person, a fourth person, a room full of people. In terms of SAs, as the writer’s camera moves in, the SAs become less and less important. The action beats become less and less important. As we back away, we focus more on what we can see rather than what we can hear. There are more people, so we pay more attention to who said what.

Domino said...

Interesting discussion.

Just gotta say, I love these rules posts. Thanks for your effort in making these rules clear.

I'm reading the first part of Amber Morn on the emails sent by Zondervan Breakfast Club.

Lianne said...

I'm just jumping in at kind of the last minute, but I've read back on all your "rules" posts. Great advice, and points well taken.

Maybe because I'm "coming in late to class" I don't have the right to make a request anymore, but I'm going to anyway. **G**

I have to reiterate what one blogee said (Pam) about figuring out how to know where/when to start a story. I understand the "action grabs a reader bit," but I wonder the same things that Pam does. Why will a reader care that a dark hooded villain is after my herione if they haven't gotten to know her at least a little? In other words, how do you balance the setting up of your story with jumping right into the action? And is this different for different genres?

Looking forward to more of your posts. :)

Pam Halter said...

Thanks for agreeing with me, Lianne. Many of my writer friends feel the same way.

I have a comment about today's example: “Hey, kid!” He cupped his hands to yell toward the roof.

Shouldn't the action come before the dialog in this instance? I mean, Sam would have cupped his hands around his mouth before he shouted.

I'm also wondering about those of us who write for kids. Are dialog tags more frequent for the younger reader to lessen confusion?

Pam Meyers said...

I have two comments. First about the overuse of "he said" etc. Last summer I listened to an audio book called "After This." A secular novel about a family coming of age in the fifties and sixties. Like someone else said, the author had chosen to use SA's with almost every line of dialogue. I don't know if I would have noticed it so much if I'd been reading the novel and not listening to it, but the he said...she said attributes about drove me crazy after a while. That was all I heard instead of what was being said. I came home from my walk and started going through my WIP to make sure I wasn't doing the same thing LOL.

As to Pam Halter's question about diaglog tags like this being more frequent in children's stories, I say yes. My friend writes for kids and I often crit his work. It took me a while to adjust to the many more SAs, not just he said's but also he whispered, he cried, he hollered, etc. It's another ball game in that genre.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Pam Halter--yes, regarding your "cupped the hands" question. This sort of gets into the "rule" about proper order of action/reaction, which we'll cover later. In the edit, I didn't want to deal with anything but the SAs themeselves.

As to children's, I'll have to take Pam Meyers answer on that. I imagine she's right, but I know nothing about children's writing.

Lianne, we will deal with when to start a story before this series is over.

Thanks for the comments.