Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Say It, Don't Spray It

by Rachael Phillips

Playground culture in my childhood corner of the world taught me numerous new words and phrases. I learned to say “ain’t and “crik” (as in “the crik don’t rise”). We cursed each other with cooties. Talkative schoolmates with overactive salivary glands or tissueless sneezes were ordered to “say it, don’t spray it!”
The last memory induces me to towel off with disinfectant wipes. However, weighty literary observations can be salvaged even from such barbarisms.

I refer to the manner in which we writers assign actions, or "beats" to characters during dialogue. We do this for valid reasons: a) to inform readers of who is speaking without using the dreaded tag “she said.” b) to make readers aware of the setting and the characters’ relationship to it; c) to build emotion, especially tension, as characters act out inner thoughts and feelings; and, most important, d) to make editors happy.

They will not be happy, however, if we overuse certain expressions, spraying readers with repeated hydrant blasts of “her cheeks heated,” “he raised his eyebrows,” “she stared,” “he glared,” and “the corners of her mouth turned down.” (Do mouths have corners?)

On the other hand, writers may work too hard to avoid the mundane and instead, pelt readers with action. Upon reading a scene, including my own, I sometimes wonder if the characters would benefit from large doses of medication. They pace, sit, rise, turn, weep, babble, wheeze, sneeze and snort within the first three sentences.

Extreme efforts to produce original work may also prove self-defeating, as in “Rosalinda’s pink smile decayed into a slimy sneer.” (Eww. We need more wipes.)     

“He said” sounds positively elegant, right? It is—and so are beats, blended smoothly and sparingly into sections of dialogue. Some spoken lines may not even require identification. A carefully crafted conversation’s content will often point out who is saying/doing what without a sloppy spray of language that makes the reader want to duck.

Any say-it-don’t-spray-it advice you would care to offer? (And, by the way, has anyone ever discovered a cure for cooties?)


  1. As always Rachael, you manage to get the point across with humor. I've got to say sometimes it's positively a relief to read a story where he said she said happens without a lot of "depth" or spit. ..
    [ ] That's me turning up the corners of my big mouth or am I chewing gum?

  2. LOL, Mary! Or, (using playground vernacular), you could give a raspberry!

    Keeping a balance of tags and beats is a real art. When I'm writing thousands of words, I find it tough to conceive enough original, relevant actions. Especially when I run out of acceptable body parts....