I never knew there was a name for this.
I have what I think is a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom, especially in the area of writing fiction. I think conventional wisdom leads to conventional writing, and while that may lead to predictable sales, it doesn’t mean the writing is any good.
There are shelves and shelves of guidebooks telling wannabe fiction writers how to do it. Most of them are bunk. Most of them, I am convinced, are written solely to be sold to eager consumers. Most of them are cynical products offering obvious, simplistic “wisdom,” but what is worse, most of them sell well.
It’s because of that, I think, that so many writers of commercial fiction fall all over themselves in praise of the rules these writing guidebooks spout. After all, these guides wouldn’t sell so well if they weren’t doing something right, right? Perhaps, but what is it they are doing right? They are liberating writers from the obligation and difficult work of thinking for themselves. They are replacing the demands of creativity with the comparative ease of formula.
But enough of that ranting.
A certain hugely successful commercial fiction writer (whose prose I consider pedestrian) recently wrote a certain hugely successful book about how to write. She was soundly thrashed by many reviewers for taking freshman-level writing instruction and passing it off as profound wisdom. But since the writer was a success, her writing book became a success too. “Don’t use adverbs,” she intoned. “Don’t use passive voice.” (Sometimes I think the right adverb is exactly the right way to modify a verb or adjective. And sometimes it really doesn’t matter who did the action but merely that the action was done.) I enjoyed laughing at these dictums in the book when I saw how frequently she violated them.
Among the sage pronouncements in the book (and in countless other writing guidebooks and now countless, fawning blog posts) is the proper use of dialog attributes. “I wouldn’t waste my time reading that book,” he said, with “he said” being the dialog attribution.
The author asserted (said?) that in most cases, if you even have to make an attribution at all, the word “said” is the best choice. Maybe so, but it also seems like this could be an opportunity to use a stronger verb. Consider this list:
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he said.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he shouted.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he sighed.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he whispered.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he groaned.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he mumbled.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he insisted.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he laughed.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he spat.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he sneered.
- “I can’t take it anymore,” he sniffed.
Each of those variations offers a different nuance to the character’s statement. Each subtly alters the meaning expressed. Each gives a slightly different insight about the character’s state of mind or the circumstance. Each (except the first) does more work than “he said.” What’s more, the important difference between each variation is readily understood by the average reader. (I think I have said before that writing to formula can be an insult to the reader.)
The last three are called “said-bookisms,” which are considered especially pernicious according to this article. Such attributive verbs cannot be literally true, and so, according to the article, they should not be used.
Can’t you just picture a character “sniffing” her comment to someone? And within context, doesn’t that tell you something about the character? Can’t you see a character spitting out words? When a character “burps” his response, doesn’t that give you a more precise meaning than if he merely “said” his response?
“Said” is a perfectly fine verb, and probably in most cases, it is the right word to use. But depending on what you want your writing to do, it may not be up to the job. A writer should be vigilant to find the best word and not merely adhere to a rule. Conventional wisdom is not doing you any favors in situations like that.
I don’t suppose it is conventional wisdom I truly disdain. Rather, I think it is the automatic and uncritical acceptance, even championing of it that bugs me. Conventional wisdom develops to serve a need. The problem with that is that sometimes needs change. Or sometimes needs aren’t universal. Or sometimes the needs are not real.
In any case, conventional wisdom is not going to produce another Dickens or Melville or Austen or Roth or Morrison or Thoreau.
Update May 7, 2011: I fume about this again in this post.