Writing Hints: Attributives, Modifiers, Scenes and Looking in the Mirror

Christopher Moore

(Not really an interview, just a piece I wrote for the people on the bulletin board that might help some of you who are learning your craft. -CM)

Last night my girlfriend was reading a suspense novel by a guy who is selling millions of books. She started visibly cringing, then she put the book down and said, “This guy just sucks. I can’t believe the reviewers thought his dialogue was good.” Then she proceeded to read me some dialogue.

At every change of speaker, the writer used a new and unique attributive (he saids, she saids). Things like:

“No,” Bob ejaculated.

“Oh yes,” retorted Sally.

“Maybe,” James jumped in.

“Bite me,” Bob riposted.

“Is that an invitation?” queried Sally.

Well, you get the idea. And no, I’m not exaggerating much. So here’s your lesson for the day.

He said, she said, it said. In 90% of the cases you can use “said” as your attributive verb. In cases where there are only two speakers you can often get away without attributes because the gods of grammar have given us that wonderful rule about a new speaker on each line. Sure, occasionally someone will “shout” or “whisper”, or “hiss”, but in most cases “said” will do the job.

Now lesson two. Modifying “said” with adverbs. Sure, sometimes someone will say something in a manner that is out of character for the words, then you’ll have to modify how they said it, but in most cases, if you’ve done your job with the dialogue, you won’t need to say how someone said it. For example

“I think I’m going to kill myself,” Bob said forlornly. (or sullenly, or sadly)

Well, Duh! Sort of goes without saying, doesn’t it.

On the other hand,

“I think I’m going to kill myself,” Bob said cheerfully. Well, in that case, you would want the modifier, because you don’t often hear that phrase in a cheerful manner. (My personal idiosyncrasy is to add some sort of gesture: “I think I’m going to kill myself,” said Bob, grinning like a possum eating a used Pamper.)

Overall, you want to try to avoid adverbs (-ly words) altogether, but in dialogue and attributives, really measure whether you need to use them. Your first task in reading over anything you write is to flush out the unneeded modifiers (both adverbs and adjectives) and kill them like rabid dogs. Now, some hints:

Write in scenes, just like in play or a movie. Each scene should accomplish something. (Making people laugh is also accomplishing something, although you won’t find that in any of the “how to write” books) This will further break up your chapters.

Write in omniscient and limited third person point of view, and change points of view between scenes if you need to by using a double break. This is perfectly acceptable and is a great way to establish character, since we’ll see different scenes through different people’s eyes. It also allows you to cliff-hang one character and go on to another. I’ve written all but one of my books this way for a reason, and the reason is that it gives you a lot of options and a lot of devices for creating suspense.

Do not have characters walk in front of a mirror, a window, or a reflecting pond and notice how they look. Just say how the fuck they look. Even experienced writers do the “He surveyed himself in the mirror and thought, not bad for an old broad,” lines and I just want to bitch slap them. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read some suspense novels. Otherwise perfectly talented writers are afraid to pick up the goddamn point of view and describe a character without some tired-ass device. Don’t paint yourself into that corner. In my experience all anyone who looks in the mirror ever thinks to himself is “wow, is my hair fucked up” or “boy, am I fat”. (Wow, that sort of turned into a rant. Sorry. Sore spot. Ran into that last night in something I’m reading.) Also, unless it’s important, most all you need to know about someone is about how old they are and maybe two other things. For instance, he was in his forties, thin, and had a horn in the middle of his forehead. You can just see the guy, can’t you?

Use descriptive verbs. If someone sidles, scooches, slimes, skulks, sneaks, slides, glides, dances, skips or bounces across a room, you don’t have to say how they did it. If they move or walk, you may feel tempted to say how.

Best thing to do with a scene is use guerilla tactics. That is: get in, get out, and nobody gets hurt. If you must describe, describe in order of perception. You notice that a person in the bar is wearing a chicken suit long before you notice that the bar has leaded glass mirrors.