Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Looking back over my past blogs, I start to wonder who the heck am I to give advice to other writers? It's not like I'm Jennifer Crusie who has an entire class she is presenting on how to write a novel. She's also an amazingly successful and completely obsessed writer. And if you're not subscribing to her class (going on now!) then shame on you—you ought to be. Check out and listen to them. They have a lot of good things to say, although I have to disagree with several frothing-at-the-mouth points that Jennifer makes which I think are just…well, completely wrong. She's an avid fan (rabid fan) of only using either action tags in dialog or a simple a phrase including: said. No whispers, sighs, moans, whatever. And yet. Hmmm. She's wrong.

You see, in point of fact, while I agree with the use (or rather the non-use) of phrases such as: he hissed, "You'll never get away with that!" And I *sort of* agree with Jennifer's claim that it requires there to be a lot of "s's" in the phrase someone is hissing because of the sibilance—in a way, I actually don't agree. I don't agree that hiss requires there to be "s's" in the words being hissed. I just don't care for that particular attribution. I agree with Jennifer that in most cases, you ought to just use a simple: said. It's cleaner and not so melodramatic.

But she is totally, utterly, completely, mind-blowingly wrong about sigh. It does NOT need any sibilance, and anyone who has EVER been a member of a family will COMPLETELY know the exact mood and how it sounds when a teenager turns to her mother and sighs, "Oh, Mom." That is a sigh. Nothing else fits that description. "Said" does not convey it at all. And I'm shocked that Jennifer doesn't realize this because I believe she has at least one child and has been, at some time in her life, a child, and must therefore have either sighed at or been the recipient of a sigh of this sort.

In fact, I'll bet that at one time, she or her mom, in her turn, looked at her husband/child who has once more doing something incredibly stupid and sighed, "Oh, Person's-Name." You know exactly what is going on and exactly what that sighing, breath-letting-out, phrase means. We've all either uttered it or been the recipient of it many, many times. That long suffering sigh. The sigh of a wounded martyr. That guilt-inspiring sigh that is pretty much saying: "Oh, somebody's-name-who has-just-caused-me-a-vast-ocean-of-disappointment-or-shame."

Sighs absolutely do not include nor imply any sibilance whatsoever, and in dialog, there is nothing like that exhaling sigh, that "what am I going to do with you?" sigh, that sigh that we've all heard and felt guilty over and ashamed at after hearing.

So really, even the great writers sometimes get it wrong or make up rules that actually don't work and may have no basis in reality. Which is why I pretty much ignore all rules that don't make sense to me. Maybe it's why I'm not a great NY Times selling author. Maybe I'm just a mediocre hack with a limited vocabulary that doesn't understand that sighs have to be sibilant. Since when? The dictionary does NOT define it that way. A sigh is exhaled air, period. It's not a hiss. (The sibilant part is just completely wrong, if not entirely nut-so and frankly to my ear means there is something wrong with your hearing, but anyway…)

And while I'm on the subject, you actually CAN laugh something, as in: "You old goat!" she laughed.

I have, many times, tried to talk or did talk while I was laughing and gasping for air.

Why is it that authors who make all these rules about dialog tags don't seem to have lived actual lives? Don't they ever laugh while they're trying to talk? Don't they ever turn to their spouse and sigh, "Oh, Whoever. Why? Why did you do that for the hundredth time?"

I could, on a certain level, accept that Jennifer's real reason is that she doesn't want the reader to pause even for a nanosecond while reading the dialog to "figure out" what the tag means. Okay. I can sort of accept that, but really…ummmm, no. I have a brain. I use it. I read. I have no problem with whispers, sighs, and laughs. In fact, it makes me hear the dialog more clearly and understand what is going on. It doesn't make me think the writer doesn't know his or her business. In fact, it makes the story richer.

In the end, I'm afraid if this means I will forever be a mediocre writer and end up (as Jennifer said) in Writer's Hell for crimes against the reading public, then so be it. If the mother in my story looks at her headstrong child and sighs, "Oh, Henry…" Then by God, I'm going to use the word: sigh. And if my character is laughing and trying to talk at the same time (like I do all the time) then by God they are going to say, "Oh, please, quit—you're killing me," she laughed, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Although I swear I won't ever use the word: hissed. Because quite frankly, it's just silly. I'm not writing melodramas.


Anonymous said...

I can't speak for Jenny Crusie, of course, but I understand her reasoning differently than you do. She means, quite simply, that one sighs. And then one speaks. Or, that one speaks, and then one sighs. They don't happen simultaneously. It's not that the reader has to come to a dead halt to try and see if she can sigh and say, "Oh, Henry," at the same time. It's just more logical to write them as two separate occurrences. Additionally, she does make it exceedingly clear with everything she offers as writing wisdom that it's just her point of view, what she has learned--through many years of study and application--to work best in fiction writing.

Amy said...

:-) But that is precisely my point. That you CAN and DO sigh the words. You expell that sigh while you are speaking. The sigh, in effect, carries the words. The words come out all breathy. I've done it myself (sad to say). I've taken a deep breath and sighed, "Oh, Mom..."
While I'm saying that, I'm letting out that deep breath in a sigh so that the words are sighed.

And this is entirely different than the whining, "Oh, Ma--um..." which is where you actually whine the word "Mom" and break it into two syllables, "Ma" and "um". The teenager's favorite phrase of exasperation.

Same with laughing. I've talked at the same time as I've been laughing.

I guess I'm weird if I'm the only one on the planet who has ever done this or seen it done. I had no idea I was so unusual.

Maybe I do need to stop using those phrases in my writing if I'm the only human capable of doing this. :-)

Anonymous said...

It all comes down to personal taste. To me it looks silly to write, she sighed, she laughed, she moaned, she groaned. I NOTICE it. Others, obviously, don't. It's just more invisible to use, she said. Again, still not speaking for anyone else here, but if the key is to lock your reader in an air-tight fictive world, then using "said" is just a more effective way to accomplish it.