Variety, as a wise man once said, is the spice of life.
There’s a lot of truth to that. After all, it never hurts a person, especially a creative person, to go out and try a lot of new things. Visit new places. Taste new foods. Learn new skills. Or go out to sow a bunch of wild oats, as my eighty-eight year old great-aunt Marie said I should do right before graduation.
That was an awkward lunch, let me tell you.
Heck, even within our writing, variety is a pretty good. Repetition of words makes people’s eyes glaze over, and makes it look like you’ve got an extremely limited vocabulary. Heck, that’s why we have pronouns, so we don’t need to repeat the same nouns all the time. As Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla once said, using all those nouns over and over can really wear you down.
When I was starting out as a wee little writer, back in the days when Brian Daley’s Han Solo Trilogy was considered the apex of modern literature by most intelligent folks, I understood the need for variety. There were lots of things I didn’t know about writing, but my early exploration into words showed me that something could be blue or sapphire or sky-colored. Hair could be golden or flaxen or blond (and sometimes blonde).
One thing I came to realize was the number of descriptive ways dialogue could be attributed to speakers. My characters could declare. They could retort. They could intone. At times I had them growl, mutter, curse, hiss, whisper, shout, shriek, cackle, answer, and respond. On rare occasions, they were known to moan and gasp and groan. Once, I clearly remember one of them pontificating.
Before I was twenty I had set down a personal rule of variety, so to call it. Words should never duplicate on the same page. Especially not for mundane things like dialogue descriptors. There were so many more colorful and exotic and specific ways to get across what a character was saying.
About ten years back I had the lucky chance to sit down with an editor from Tor books at the San Diego State Writer’s Conference. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember his name, even though I’ve gone digging through old notes and emails trying to find it. This polite gent looked at the first few pages of The Suffering Map. He thought the bit with the payphone was wonderfully creepy and even liked the ravens at the library that finished off the first chapter. One thing had him shaking his head, though, and I think my face probably went a little slack as he demolished one of my long-standing personal rules.
(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, since this was face to face and about a decade back).
“Said is invisible,” he explained. “People skim over said without even realizing they’ve read a word, so your story moves faster. You don’t need all these words.” He showed me the first two pages, with a good two dozen red circles across them.
My clever attempt to show off my vocabulary and add color to my writing had left an editor shaking his head.
What shocked me even more, though, was discovering how right he was. I went home, sat down at the keyboard, and about 90% of those words became said. And the story did more faster. Heck, I even lost two pages off the total length. Just like that.
I still come across folks who believe as I once did. And it’s easy to see why they do. Whispering something is very different than saying it. Snarling an answer implies a different tone and subtext than saying it.
But how much of this is the reader going to do for you? Once I know the character and the context, doesn’t that set most of the tone and subtext for me? We all know the Joker has that hysterical edge to his voice. Does he really need to giggle or chuckle or cackle his lines?
Look back up at the opening of this little rant, and some of the folks I talked about. The wise man. Rufus. My wonderful great-aunt Marie. Nobody intoned or declared or advised. They all just said. That’s it. And you cruised over it quickly, smoothly, and without effort.
I’m not saying never use these other words, but they should be the exception in your writing, not the rule. I’ve suggested limiting yourself to four adjectives per page and one adverb. Try going back over something of yours and using just one or two clever dialogue descriptors per page. When they’re rare, they’ll have weight. They’ll have punch. And that punch is what makes your writing stand out.
Next week, just to keep you all on your toes, I want to talk about how no one should ever see your writing. Absolutely no one.
Until then, back to writing.