"Interesting finding!" Harrry enthused.
October 13, 2021 4:18 PM   Subscribe

“It’s a hallmark of bad writing to be way more verbose than required,” he intoned somberly, sighing quickly as he mashed, smashed and slashed his F5 key. The screen refreshed, and he smiled s l o o o o w l y.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:25 PM on October 13 [29 favorites]

"Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied." - Elmore Leonard
posted by fuzz at 4:37 PM on October 13 [47 favorites]

Analyzing only 20 of the 337,656 HP fics in AO3 feels... like it's missing the point. But who knows, maybe it is a representative sample. AO3 by itself is not really representative of the early HP fandom though, its golden era is mostly archived in ff.net (> 800K fics!), and that really affects the ship stats in the second post since AO3 is a lot more ship-y (but analyzing ff.net would be way harder since in the early days you couldn't assign relationships there, only characters).

I don't know, it feels like there's a lot of cultural context missing here that makes the results kinda arbitrary.
posted by simmering octagon at 4:46 PM on October 13 [18 favorites]

I mumbled carefully. He ejaculated, Stop now! She carefully replied. The captain, who was a famous explorer, expostulated upon the possibility of a mermaid in these latitudes.
posted by Splunge at 4:50 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

I am rounding on you all right now, beaming.
posted by dumbland at 4:55 PM on October 13 [5 favorites]

These are some words that seem to have become just part of the universe in HP fan fiction:

- huffed
- pinched/rubbed (usually the bridge of the nose or between the eyebrows)

Hm, I guess it's good that I haven't binge-read so recently that the other examples don't come to mind.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:08 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

and slashed his F5 key

posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:11 PM on October 13 [3 favorites]

If I see a nipple pebble-- one! More! TIME!
posted by lloquat at 5:20 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

- huffed

RE "huffed", I'm suddenly getting flashbacks from Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. I can't specifically recall a line of text, but I have a vague sense that Nynaeve was huffing practically every other line.

Maybe it's just the way the character was written, though.
posted by darkstar at 5:36 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

An Elmore Leonard Potter fanfiction, now that would be a hell of a thing. Crooked Aurors, magical US west coast, spare dialogue and profound cynicism about human nature. Minus ten points from Gryffindor. There's no why, I just can.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:52 PM on October 13 [18 favorites]

- huffed

There are a couple of reasons I stopped reading fic, but characters constantly huffing was one of them.

The real question I have about this blog post: did she sort by comments or kudos? Or did she pull the true intellectual move and sort by bookmarks?
posted by betweenthebars at 5:55 PM on October 13 [8 favorites]

For some reason the characters in Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh books are always crying. Not crying-crying, though, just, "'It's Pooh!' he cried"-crying.

It somewhat complicates explaining to a child exactly what crying is.
posted by clawsoon at 5:59 PM on October 13 [6 favorites]

'Murrow Muggles Snape Hunt'
An Elmore Leonard Potter Fanfic.
posted by clavdivs at 6:18 PM on October 13 [3 favorites]

I've heard it said (ahem) that "said" is kind of semantically invisible but syntactically useful. I tried paying attention while reading whether "said" ever became distracting and whether alternate verbs became distracting, or if the writer goes too long without including "said So-and-So" and I have to take a moment to remind myself which of the conversants is speaking.

I've found "said" to be pretty darn close to invisible, and not distracting. So I definitely made a point to change my habit of trying to avoid it for fear of repetition.
posted by tclark at 6:19 PM on October 13 [6 favorites]

I've found "said" to be pretty darn close to invisible, and not distracting

“Said” is so invisible that I frequently skip over it while reading out loud to my daughter, who points it out every time.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:32 PM on October 13 [5 favorites]

sain it's...
posted by clavdivs at 6:48 PM on October 13

"Admit it, all this time, have you ever once listened to me, or have you just been waiting for the pun? If I talk and there's no jokey adverb at the end, do I make a sound? Do you feel me? No, I'm just a word game to you, a fucking century-old word game for nerds on fucking Metafilter," Tom said hopelessly.
posted by aws17576 at 7:37 PM on October 13 [17 favorites]

Hall monitors of language, begone!
posted by praemunire at 7:42 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

I'll tell you one thing about the harry potter dialog: the volume of it plus 'said' make it an excruciating read-aloud. "Who's talking now, dad," she queried. x10000
posted by j_curiouser at 8:37 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

This is not a Harry-Potter-specific phenomenon. It is endemic to fanfiction. As per usual, the HP fandom (aka Millennials) claims an age-old fannish feature as theirs alone, conceived, embodied, and deployed solely by HP fandom.
posted by tzikeh at 9:19 PM on October 13 [8 favorites]

Fact: If you use awkwardly inaccurate verbs for the speech actions, the two wrongs make a right. "Thats a funny expression," gawked Tom. "Look out below!" bombed the young aviator. "I'll take two liver and onion sandwiches myself," chewed Tom. "Not if you want to sit with me!" shunned his disgusted pal.
posted by TreeRooster at 9:41 PM on October 13 [6 favorites]

This is not a Harry-Potter-specific phenomenon. It is endemic to fanfiction. As per usual, the HP fandom (aka Millennials) claims an age-old fannish feature as theirs alone, conceived, embodied, and deployed solely by HP fandom.

Maybe I skimmed the articles too quickly, but is that what the author implied? I thought it was just a comparison between how often "said" was used in HP fanfiction compared to the actual, published books. Since it came about by comparing word frequency--in HP--and the author saw a massive discrepancy in the graph for "said" alongside everything else.

Author: My intuition was that fanfiction used other speech verbs for “said”, such as “asked”, “murmured”, “shouted”

Not that it was HP-specific.
posted by lesser weasel at 11:36 PM on October 13 [3 favorites]

This seems a just about appropriate enough a venue to air my grievance about "he/she said" in books, which is more or less ignorable on the page, if often superfluous, but starts to grate horribly when read aloud endlessly in audiobook form. I know an audiobook editing pass is probably prohibitively expensive for most books, but I can dream.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:47 AM on October 14 [2 favorites]

I've noticed a move, among the young writers I mentor, to use action beats rather than dialog tags like "said"
For example
Sandra tapped her cigarette. "Why did you do that?"
"I don't know." Jones looked away.

Some say it's because that works better in an audio format, rather than the narrator constantly reading "x said" but I think there is something else going on, something to do with the influence of story telling in visual media like movies and TV.
posted by Zumbador at 3:41 AM on October 14 [20 favorites]

I remember picking up from somewhere that it's best to avoid using "said" repeatedly, but I couldn't say exactly where the idea came from, and the downside is the kind of tortured fumbling for synonyms that is observed here.
posted by entity447b at 3:49 AM on October 14

I remember picking up from somewhere that it's best to avoid using "said" repeatedly

I think that's what most people were taught at school (not just for "said"), but weren't really taught the why or the how. Trying to follow this simplistic advice, they go to extreme lengths to avoid repeating words, like a time-traveller trying not to cause a paradox. Fumbling synonyms indeed.

I think the rule is better expressed as a broader "your words should not distract the reader from what you're trying to say". Repetition of a word can be distracting, but so can tortured avoidance of repetition.
posted by pipeski at 4:31 AM on October 14 [10 favorites]

Takeaway: JK Rowling is a mediocre writer (in the best Immortan Joe sense of the word). Newsflash from 20 years ago?
posted by BigBrooklyn at 6:06 AM on October 14

It's almost always a mistake to use something besides "said" for the reason Elmore Leonard pithily noted that fuzz quoted above. If you're a good writer, and you really give characters their own voices, you can do away with a lot of "saids" and merely have alternating dialog in quotation marks, or use action beats as Zumbador notes (I think those work better without character names, with the character doing something only they are doing–or could be doing–in the scene, as the name makes it obvious what the writer is doing, and the writer should almost always strive to be unobtrusive).

Don't do more than "said" unless the earth is cracking open, and even then you should really agonize over this choice. Doing so frequently marks you out as an amateur—as most writers of fan fiction are. If they weren't, they'd be creating their own characters from scratch.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 6:42 AM on October 14 [2 favorites]

It somewhat complicates explaining to a child exactly what crying is.

Surely that will depend upon whether you mean lachrymation or the shouting of something?
posted by pompomtom at 6:45 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

I'm teaching Jane Eyre at the moment, and it's a really striking contrast. One of the hallmarks of Bronte's style is that she is extremely parsimonious with dialogue tags: there are the "said"s, "remarked"s, and "cried"s, to be sure, but she frequently has long exchanges between characters with few or no tags at all.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:45 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

I've noticed a move, among the young writers I mentor, to use action beats rather than dialog tags like "said"

This was my initial assumption on the data, to be honest--avoid the repetition altogether while also conveying a visual. It would be interesting seeing which words are enriched in the fanfiction versus the published dataset to see whether the fan writers are disproportionately using other vocalization verbs instead of "said" or whether you're seeing more of other types of markers instead.
posted by sciatrix at 7:09 AM on October 14 [3 favorites]

For me, without regular 'saids' or action beats, I very quickly get confused which characters are talking. Using 'Said' clearly doesn't mark you as a mediocre writer. (They don't protect you from becoming a rampant transphobe though.)

I'd be fascinated to see a similar comparative analysis of linguistic corpus across different genres of fanfiction. Smut vs. Coffee Shop AUs vs. same genre. I'd be interested to see differences in fanfiction of non-written media, such as TV shows.
posted by Braeburn at 7:16 AM on October 14 [4 favorites]

Are... they... also... going... to... compare... the number... of... ellipses...?

(even before JKR went full terf, I always resented her overuse of ellipses. DON'T MAKE ME READ YOUR 2000 PAGE BOOK EVEN MORE SLOWLY, JOANNE.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:20 AM on October 14 [2 favorites]

The thing that really breaks my reading flow is when there is dialog from character A, without any "said" or equivalent phrase, followed immediatly by some action of character B. It's often meant to show character B is reacting to what character A has just said. A very simple example is
"What do you think?" B considered what he might answer.
There are some fanfic authors that do this A LOT and it is like a pebble in my shoe that I have to stop and deal with. I am pretty sure that A said that, but then immediatly the next name I see is B right up next to the closing quote so now I doubt my own comprehension and I am annoyed at the author.

The really sad thing is I keep writing this way myself and then get annoyed at myself when I go back over what I've written.
posted by buildmyworld at 8:38 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

I think it matters a lot whether it's in the same paragraph, or whether it's broken into separate paragraphs. This reads much better:
"What do you think?"

B considered what he might answer.
Alternating paragraphs for alternating speakers is common style and I don't have any problems following it without explicit dialogue tags. I don't think most readers do? At least, that's what I'd guess based on how common this is even among well-regarded and skilled writers.

It's when an author fails to pick up on this rhythm and puts dialogue/action from different characters in the same paragraph that I start to get confused and frustrated.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:49 AM on October 14 [4 favorites]

Are... they... also... going... to... compare... the number... of... ellipses...?

The idiosyncratic use of ellipses was how I knew the carpet book was real and not a BNF hoax like I’d thought.

“Both professional writers and amateurs frequently turn out lazy and/or incompetent prose,” she said, staring pointedly at a stack of mystery novels whose characters roll their eyes every other page.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:54 AM on October 14 [2 favorites]

Alternating paragraphs for alternating speakers is common style and I don't have any problems following it without explicit dialogue tags. I don't think most readers do? At least, that's what I'd guess based on how common this is even among well-regarded and skilled writers.

I often have to backtrack half a page or more when writers do this. I think it can work if the dialogue itself gives a strong sense of character. But when the dialogue is fairly bland, or the two characters have similar speech patterns, I find I get confused over who is saying what.
posted by pipeski at 8:58 AM on October 14 [5 favorites]

Don't do more than "said" unless the earth is cracking open, and even then you should really agonize over this choice.

I was trying to be more indirect about this, but there is nothing more middle-brow than inventing and "enforcing" some rule of writing that would exclude the work of many good writers:
“Have you drunk your tea?” asked the son.

“Yes, and enjoyed it.”

“Shall I give you some more?”

The old man considered, placidly. “Well, I guess I’ll wait and see.” He had, in speaking, the American tone.

“Are you cold?” the son enquired.

The father slowly rubbed his legs. “Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell till I feel.”

“Perhaps some one might feel for you,” said the younger man, laughing.

“Oh, I hope some one will always feel for me! Don’t you feel for me, Lord Warburton?”

“Oh yes, immensely,” said the gentleman addressed as Lord Warburton, promptly. “I’m bound to say you look wonderfully comfortable.”

“Well, I suppose I am, in most respects.” And the old man looked down at his green shawl and smoothed it over his knees. “The fact is I’ve been comfortable so many years that I suppose I’ve got so used to it I don’t know it.”

“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” said Lord Warburton. “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.”

“It strikes me we’re rather particular,” his companion remarked.

“Oh yes, there’s no doubt we’re particular,” Lord Warburton murmured. And then the three men remained silent a while; the two younger ones standing looking down at the other, who presently asked for more tea. “I should think you would be very unhappy with that shawl,” Lord Warburton resumed while his companion filled the old man’s cup again.

“Oh no, he must have the shawl!” cried the gentleman in the velvet coat. “Don’t put such ideas as that into his head.”

“It belongs to my wife,” said the old man simply.

“Oh, if it’s for sentimental reasons—” And Lord Warburton made a gesture of apology.

“I suppose I must give it to her when she comes,” the old man went on.

“You’ll please to do nothing of the kind. You’ll keep it to cover your poor old legs.”

“Well, you mustn’t abuse my legs,” said the old man. “I guess they are as good as yours.”

“Oh, you’re perfectly free to abuse mine,” his son replied, giving him his tea.

“Well, we’re two lame ducks; I don’t think there’s much difference.”

“I’m much obliged to you for calling me a duck. How’s your tea?”

“Well, it’s rather hot.”

“That’s intended to be a merit.”

“Ah, there’s a great deal of merit,” murmured the old man, kindly. “He’s a very good nurse, Lord Warburton.”
Take it up with Henry James, people.
posted by praemunire at 9:53 AM on October 14 [7 favorites]

When I was a kid, I loved the "Oz" books, and for me, L. Frank Baum's style was the pinnacle of fine writing. Here are the first attribution verbs in the first two chapters of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," in order:

Called, screamed, said, said, replied, continued, cried, said, asked, answered, inquired, asked, (none), asked, (none), cried, answered, said, said, inquired, (none), said, replied, asked, answered, asked, explained, said, said, said, said, said, said, counted, asked, answered, asked, (none), inquired, (none), asked, (none), pleaded, replied, said.

Only 13 out of 39 are "said." 13 out of 45 if you include dialog without tags. And it only gets worse as the series goes on. Anyway, using Baum as a style guide, my own wretched attempts at story-writing as a child were riddled with declareds, remarkeds, and objecteds.

As an adult I now realize that Baum was, to put it mildly, a silly writer, and from what I understand he disliked writing the Oz series, doing it purely for the paycheck. So I like to imagine that his creative use of speech verbs partly arose out of sheer boredom, as a creative exercise to keep himself engaged.

Anyway, we can perhaps dismiss Baum as a hack. What about a better regarded author? A comparison from Jane Austen's first four chapters of "Pride and Prejudice" is interesting. She uses "said" for 9 out of the first 18 times she uses dialog tags, which is rather high contrasted with contemporary literature, but compared to Baum seems fairly reasonable. But if you include tagless lines of dialog, which presumably Black did in her analysis of HP fanfic, then Austen falls to only 9 of 59!

My takeaway from this is that older fiction is a lot more varied in terms of attribution verbs in a way that can come off as faintly ridiculous to contemporary readers. But to an audience that consumes a lot of genre fiction, such as Regency novels and the like, antiquated dialog conventions might seem to be normal or even preferable as an affectation. That's one possible reason for a relatively lower use of "said" in fanfic.

But in addition, from my own distant fanfic days, I recall simply getting tired of using dialog tags all the time, and would resort to tagless dialog as much as possible. A professional writer like Rowling learns to avoid certain lazy shortcuts, and so her "said" ratio would naturally be higher than someone who's avoiding tags for mere expediency.

Speaking of Rowling, for the first two chapters of her "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," we wind up with 30 or 31 out of 49 tags being "said" (one is "saying"), or 73 if you include tagless lines.

Still not up to Elmore Leonard's standards, I'd wager. Maybe it's a British thing?
posted by xigxag at 10:00 AM on October 14 [3 favorites]

In the first chapter of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you don't hit a said for a speech tag until the fifth one. TTSS may not be a great work of literature but it's generally recognized as competent and evocative writing.

Of the first three speech tags in the first chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, there's a said, a "demands," and a "pronounces." If I had written the first chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, I would be content forever.
posted by praemunire at 10:12 AM on October 14 [3 favorites]

I hate it when writers, even great writers (and Elmore Leonard was a great writer), issue dicta about the Right Way to Write. Those rules are great, except when they aren't, but internet commentators and petty language tyrants seize upon them as gospel. (Don't get me started on Strunk and White.) Meanwhile, other internet commentators can handily list dozens of great writers, old and new, who don't follow whatever "rule" you cite, and it just goes on endlessly. Using words other than "said" is not what makes J.K. Rowling a bad writer, nor is it the constant use of adverbs (a useful part of speech when used well, although anathema to rule-makers), it's the whole J.K. Rowlingness of her prose. The same goes for any bad writer.
posted by goatdog at 10:34 AM on October 14 [9 favorites]

How Fiction Works has a good bit about rules for fiction, and classic fiction that breaks them.

Apparently our ideas about what literary fiction should be are an invention, and possibly (it's been a while since I read half of it) has something to do with Flaubert. Sacred rules like character development or detailed sensory description aren't consistently followed in classics.

I'll give the book a moderate recommendation-- a lot of it detailed analysis of fiction I don't want to read about, let alone read-- but it's worth remembering that our ideas of literature are a cultural creation.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 1:12 PM on October 14 [2 favorites]

"Surely that will depend upon whether you mean lachrymation or the shouting of something?" Or could it be referring to the act of offering a group of forged stamps at an auction?
posted by Johnny Quaternion at 1:15 PM on October 14 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: spare dialogue and profound cynicism about human nature.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:17 PM on October 14

spamandkimchi, when I edited erotic fiction for e-book publishing, I'd say at least 75% of it was originally fanfic that the author (poorly) CTRL-F and replaced characters' names. (I'd have to make sure the names were consistent throughout the MS.) There were all kinds of weird turns of phrase that would spread among the authors; you'd see them in book after book. My [least] favorite was "Her breath came in short pants." Came. Short pants. So terrible.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:07 PM on October 14 [6 favorites]

fiercecupcake, something about that comment is fantastic. I have flagged it as such.
posted by clawsoon at 4:06 PM on October 14 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, I've read a lot of fanfiction (I maybe don't want to know exactly how much). I agree with those who said the fanfic authors are likely using action beats and untagged dialogue more often, rather than using more alternative dialogue tags (especially since we're comparing to J.K, who legit wrote 'Ron ejaculated' as a dialogue tag at one point).

Fanfiction usually isn't formatted quite the same way as published fiction, too. Harry Potter and other published books are split into paragraphs that start with indents but don't usually have any extra line space between the paragraphs; whereas, modern fanfic is written for the internet and is formatted accordingly, with no indents but with line spaces between the paragraphs, as in the multi-paragraph comments in this thread.

I wonder if this format difference might be a factor in encouraging authors to use action beats, thought beats, and untagged dialogue. Maybe the more frequent paragraph splits makes that more tenable than in published books? Or maybe they're unrelated style preferences, I dunno. Culturally, fanfic and book audiences overlap but are different and have different but equally valid tastes.

Anyway, I'm 100% in the camp that the 'you should almost never use adverbs or dialogue tags other than said or asked' rule is bogus. That 'rule' is a modern invention, very specific to our time and to white male-dominated American pop culture. It's a rule that assumes a writer from a specific 'default' culture writing to an equally specific default "the reader" with accordingly specific tastes that, though treated as inherently universal, are not. It's not even followed in many of our most canonized classics. And even a lot of modern genre darlings don't follow it - The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, for example, uses an abundant assortment of dialogue tags and adverbs and yet also is wildly popular and routinely praised specifically for its prose.

Dialogue tags can certainly be done badly (... Ron ejaculated...) but I think people are too quick to throw them all out with the bathwater. Sometimes they're unnecessary or redundant, but other times they convey necessary information about tone, or information about tone that would be clunkier to deliver in another way. I've seen a lot of modern authors resort to using mostly gestures and expressions to convey tone, which can be great, but I think sometimes authors overdo it to the point that it becomes clunky and distracting because they're twisting themselves into knots to avoid the maligned dialogue tags. Or they'll resort to making characters somehow read emotions in each others eyes and be hyper-competent at decoding fleeting micro-expressions.

The important thing in my opinion is just to be intentional about it. Don't use random dialogue tags just to avoid saying 'said', don't feel like you must do complicated backflips to avoid adverbs, but pick whatever best suits the particular scene, character, and style.
posted by Zephyr at 9:09 PM on October 14 [4 favorites]

I would suggest that when gatekeeping language and literature, if the white man who's rule one is quoting would today be 97 years old, one should perhaps consider who this rule might exclude, and what voices it might marginalize, and if that is something one wishes to perpetuate here in the year of our Lord 2021.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:53 PM on October 14 [2 favorites]

Those of you who are falsely accusing Elmore Leonard of gatekeeping might try actually reading the essay I linked to, where he begins by saying "These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over."

He is perfectly aware that there are other styles of writing than his and constantly qualifies his rules with exceptions. One example: "... unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language".
posted by fuzz at 2:10 AM on October 15 [3 favorites]

I'm not accusing Elmore Leonard of gatekeeping, I'm accusing people on this thread of gatekeeping.

Carry on.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:35 AM on October 15 [2 favorites]

This will sound snarky but I promise it isn't: I'm not clear on who is marginalized, or how, by an emphasis on fewer adverbs and more 'said's. I am not at all clear that this style of writing is somehow whiter or maler than something that uses more adverbs and more speaking verbs. If there is some reading to be done that analyzes language use in literature across gender, race, class, or other lines, though, I'd love to be pointed in that direction.
posted by mittens at 9:23 AM on October 15 [4 favorites]

Ron ejaculated loudly. ""Weasley," said Ron, thrusting..."
posted by BungaDunga at 9:33 AM on October 15

At the end of the day, this is about aesthetic choices in art, right? Personally I do in fact prefer verbs other than "said" in writing; aesthetically I like the ability to shade in more context that way. My spouse, who ironically writes way more fanfiction than I do, deliberately writes prose that is intended to fade into the background to allow readers to focus on the story. (Usually this also is intended to allow readers to be badly wrong-footed by unreliable narrators, of course.)

At the end of the day, I roll my eyes at prescriptivism... but I do so because these are, to my knowledge, purely aesthetic arguments. When we're arguing about aesthetic tastes, we have to remember that objectivity is harder to come by then we might all think.
posted by sciatrix at 6:50 PM on October 15 [1 favorite]

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