Lies my teachers told me
I was in a primary school classroom recently looking at a huge display showing what the inmates – sorry, children – were learning in their Literacy lessons. Part of it was about the use of dialogue in stories. The kids had apparently been learning how to vary their dialogue tags – to have their characters exclaim, question, murmur, gasp, even smile, rather than to simply say. I remembered learning the exact same thing back in my own English lessons, which took place in what today’s schoolkids would probably think was somewhere around the reign of Queen Victoria.
And it got me reflecting on all the lessons I’d had to unlearn when I first started writing fiction. Varying dialogue tags was one of the first, because, as any good editor will tell you, the best dialogue tag to use in most cases is a nice, clean “said” – or no dialogue tag at all, if the speech can be attributed through action.
“Said” is unobtrusive, whereas “exclaimed”, for example, is more unusual and draws the reader away from the story. The author should be invisible, and by drawing attention to the mechanics of writing, “exclaimed” allows them to be seen. For example, in these four versions of the same line of dialogue:
“Absolutely not!” Joe said.
“Absolutely not!” Joe exclaimed.
“Absolutely not!” Joe frowned.
“Absolutely not!” Joe jumped from his seat, leaned over the table and glared at his son.
Personally, I’d favour the final one because it adds action to the static dialogue and shows us the character’s emotion at this point. The first version is fine though, if action isn’t appropriate at this point in the scene.
The second example is both more intrusive on the reader’s experience and entirely unnecessary. The reader already knows this is an exclamation from the punctuation so there’s no need to hammer the point home.
And on no account should characters perform the physically impossible by grinning, smiling, frowning or (as in one book I read) knocking dialogue – unless of course they know Morse Code.
Purple prose was another bad habit I picked up at school from the long descriptive passages we were often asked to write in English lessons. Mine were the most schmaltzy stuff imaginable, pure saccharin, possibly beginning “it was a dark and stormy night” and incorporating at least one use of what was then my favourite word, “vermillion”. Also “azure”. I’m sure everyone was very impressed. Too much flowery language of this kind in a novel can seem cloying and sentimental, bore the readers and slow the pace.
There are perfectly good reasons we’re taught this way of writing as children. It encourages young people to expand their vocabularies, to explore the world in a sensory way and to find a way of expressing themselves, all valuable life skills. But it doesn’t necessarily make for good storytelling, and one of the very first things any writer should learn is to forget everything they’ve ever been taught about writing. Personally I’m indebted to the book Self-editing for Fiction Writers for helping me with this. It’s not a big book but I found it really useful in improving my style. It’s the book on writing I most frequently go back to.
Finally, a quick reflection on the first rule of storytelling, one nearly everyone knows: show, don’t tell. I don’t remember ever being taught this at school, and I doubt I’d have understood it if I had, but I’ve been trying to internalise it ever since I first heard it. Very simply, it means the difference between your friend coming over and telling you over coffee about her break-up with her boyfriend, and you actually watching the couple break up through the window. It means being able to transport the reader into that scene, as if they were there witnessing it. Written dialogue rather than reported speech. Present action rather than backstory. It’s the one rule I really want to see shining out in my writing.
Mary Jayne’s debut novel The Honey Trap is out in paperback on the 3rd November 2016.
Journalist Angel Blackthorne is looking for her next big scoop. When her sleazy editor asks her to use her charms on super successful – and married – film director Sebastian Wilchester for a juicy exposé, Angel thinks what the hell? There’s a staff job on the horizon, and, let’s be honest, no one can make a cheater cheat if they don’t want to, right?
After the scandal breaks, Angel tries to put the story – and Seb – behind her, but fate seems to have other ideas. A near miss at a premiere after-party and a shared love of vintage film brings the honey closer to the trap.
But what happens when pretence leads to passion, and a ‘kiss and tell’ becomes something real?
Mary Jayne Baker – bio
Mary Jayne Baker grew up in rural West Yorkshire, right in the heart of Brontë country… and she’s still there. After graduating from Durham University with a degree in English Literature in 2003, she dallied with living in cities including London, but eventually came back with her own romantic hero in tow to her beloved Dales.
She lives with him in a little house with four little cats and a little rabbit, writing stories about girls with flaws and the men who love them. You can usually find her there with either a pen, some knitting needles or a glass of wine in hand. She goes to work every day as a graphic designer for a magazine publisher, but secretly dreams of being a lighthouse keeper.
More information can be found about MJ on her website at http://www.maryjaynebaker.co.uk. You can also follow her on Twitter, @MaryJayneBaker, or like her Facebook page by going to Facebook.com/MaryJayneWrites