We don’ need no stinkin’ rules!

I’m not good with rules. I’ve been trying to write a page of dialogue for my new work-in-progress, Lessons in Space, and I keep getting hung up.

Some of them are easy. Always put the words between quotation marks, unless the communication is telepathic, subvocalized or expressed in some other way, like light waves or odor. Try to show the speaker’s tone of voice in the tag. You could use an adverb to tell emotion, but it isn’t as strong. Make each character’s “voice” distinctive.

The one I always have trouble with is the injunction to place tags (identifiers) before or after the character has spoken rather than in the middle of the speech. For example:

Dilbert shouted, “That’s a piece of crap!”

Or

“That’s a piece of crap.” Dilbert’s shoulders slumped.

These show, rather than tell, something about Dilbert’s character, and don’t interrupt the flow of his words.

A hard and fast rule, right? But let’s examine it. We all know that there are times when we pause as we speak, perhaps to emphasize a point or hunt for an exact word. Sometimes, we can indicate this in writing by using ellipses. For example:

“That’s. . . a piece of crap,” Dilbert announced.

But if we really want to emphasize a point, wouldn’t it be more dramatic to do it this way?

“That,” Dilbert announced, pointing at the painting, “is a piece of crap!”

Here, we reinforce that Dilbert is an arrogant, opinionated individual who is used to being listened to.

If used sparingly, breaking the speech with a tag can be quite successful. But it violates the rules.

Everyone needs rules, writers of fiction included. We have to check our spelling, and obey most of the rules of punctuation and grammar. Without these guidelines, we can’t communicate effectively, and our readers would throw down our books in disgust.

However, as fiction writers, we are accustomed to weaving words to create a mood or define a character, as deftly and succinctly as possible. We might use an otherwise unacceptable spelling of a word to indicate an accent. A lizardman from Omicron VI would need extra esses to illustrate his hiss, and a Klingon growls his rrrrs.

Maybe insert a sentence fragment. We could even string letters together to show an alien language, make up futuristic slang, devise unique ways of indicating non-verbal communications like snorts or sniffs.

I believe that if we allow ourselves to slavishly follow the rules, we will limit ourselves too much. We have to allow ourselves some freedom. Perhaps, sometimes, the laws of good writing lead to the loss of good writing.

I know others will disagree, and I welcome comments.

Use of commonly accepted grammar and spelling optional.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “We don’ need no stinkin’ rules!

  1. Dorothy Taishoff

    When a writer breaks “the rules,” it must serve both the story and the reader.

    I’m not sure what the rules are or whose rules they are. Certain conventions have developed over time and in cultures because they’ve been useful. [In hindsight I write: You can, if you want, skip directly to my last, one-sentence paragraph.]

    If a writer is confident, compelling and consistent, the reader will go with whatever they are reading (or hearing). Preciousness or quirkiness for its own sake on the printed page serves no one. Language that is not on a par with the intellectual level of the work or the emotional levels of the characters causes failure.

    I think that, in general, when we’re reading dialogue, we lightly skim over the tags. They’re necessary to keep straight in the reader’s mind who is speaking, but a reader (unless very young or very slow) doesn’t read them with the same weight as the dialogue. In the process of writing, tags may seem to an author to be clunky, unnecessary or working against the intensity or speed of the dialogue. Not to a reader. If there is rhythm and variety in the presentation, the reader will cherish it and the story will be advanced.

    How is the story to be read: Listened to as an audio book (in a car? by a blind person? while washing dishes?)? Read page by single page on a tablet? Picked up and put down during a bus or rail journey, or before going to sleep? You can’t know. Do new ways of reading a book change the way a story can be told?

    “National Lampoon’s Doon” takes Frank Herbert’s style to school, making his use of ellipses (among other things) risible. Herbert laughed all the way to the bank. In the “Dune” series, the whole complex package is compelling and the reader accepts it from the get-go. Personally, I prefer “Doon.”

    I love the way Rowling presents dialogue. She’s always careful to keep the speakers identified and with just enough descriptors to keep you engaged with each of them and see them in their space. When she breaks up a sentence, it’s so well done: “It is unusual,” said Dumbledore, after a moment’s hesitation, “but not unheard of.” That may be purely her instinct – to show that moment – mid-sentence – after it’s happened. It is a beautiful ebb and flow. What rule (and whose rule) is she breaking?

    Even as simple a line as the following is perfectly broken (also, he’s “sure” yet questions the implications; gorgeous use of the “yes” and “why”): “Yes, I’m sure,” said Harry. “Why, what does it mean?” Where the characters are going back and forth, often one will use the other’s name. The reader is always grounded (and ready to soar).

    Tolkien made up languages that are totally accepted. What did he do to cause that? (Discussing Klingon Boggle is off the table.)

    I won’t read books that have line after line of snappy dialogue with no identifiers. Or that smack of a “look at me” style of writing.

    There are authors who use a European style of dashes before a line of dialogue. No quote marks. Less clunky on the page? Some English writers seem to favor single quotes over double. Does this help the reader to enter into the story?

    There are conventions – as with the Pirate Code, you might think of them more as . . . “guidelines.”

    • Thanks, Dorothy. As always, your comments are thoughtful and to the point. I totally agree that breaking the rules must serve the story. Otherwise it is simply an ego trip on the part of the writer. As you point out at the end, perhaps they are more guidelines. . .

  2. The only rule in fiction is that there is no rules in fiction. As far as tags go, I prefer action tags such as Tears filled her eyes or She clenched her fists. Where it fits in the sentence is up to the author.

  3. roberta shafter

    “Well”, said Roberta pensively, ” I for one have lived long enough to qualify for Social Security without ever knowing that any of these rules existed!”

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