Beyond Trumpeting and Ejaculation; Other Uses for Dialogue Tags

I dimly remember an exercise from middle school in which we spent the better part of an hour coming up with synonyms for said:

She chortled…

He sobbed…

She gasped…

They chanted…

Long before we got to that pinnacle of 19th century linguistic excitement – He ejaculated – the limitations of the exercise were growing painfully clear. While it’s neat that we have a lot of words in English, imagine a piece of prose laboring beneath the weight of these dialogue tags:

“I love you,” she prevaricated.

“You don’t,” he expostulated. “You can’t.”

She stared into his eyes, then hissed, “Yes, Ronald. I swear.”

“No,” he trumpeted. “No!”

Some writers seem to think the example above is something to which all of us should aspire. Having graded thousands of high school stories and essays loaded to the margins with I lisped, and she labored, I can’t agree.

Often, of course, it’s best not to use a dialogue tag at all; carefully crafted dialogue can usually haul its own emotional freight without too much extra help. On the other hand, we’ve all had that vexing experience of losing our place in the dialogue and being forced to count down the lines with our fingers muttering, “John said this, then Jane said this, then John said this, then Jane said that…”

Contrary to the standard high school dictum, said and replied can be great options. Both are virtually invisible, inaudible; we read right past them into the heart of the quote itself, which is surely what we ought to be doing most of the time. At the same time, they help us to keep our place.

There is another function to the dialogue tag, however, one that has nothing to do with either clarifying the speaker or explaining the tone in which the words are delivered, one concerned almost entirely with pacing. Consider this exchange from A Dance with Dragons (unless you’re worried about MINOR SPOILERS. In that case, AVERT YOUR EYES!)

She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”

“Vengeance.” His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. “Justice.” Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers, and whispered, “Fire and blood.”

I love this passage, but let’s play with it a bit. Imagine it went like this:

She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”

Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers. His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening: “Vengeance. Justice. Fire and blood.”

All the essential elements of the original are there, and yet this seems to my ear immeasurably worse. The problem is that the quote itself is rushed. Vengeance, as both a notion and a word, deserves its own space. If this were a film (and I haven’t watched the show far enough to see if it plays out this way) the actor would pause after the word, but an author can’t write explicit instructions to the reader: Pause here to consider my genius. Linger on this carefully chosen word.

Instead, the author controls the pace of the reading in other ways, in this case, through the dialogue tag, which is extended to include a single action and a description of Doran’s voice. My altered version, on the other hand, sounds like a grocery list: While you’re picking up the Captain Crunch, bananas, and milk, don’t forget the vengeance, justice, fire, and blood.

And, of course, in none of this is there a role for trumpeting, gasping, prevaricating, or any of the other tags I spent that childhood morning listing. Doran’s tag is punched up from said to whispered, but the verb doesn’t draw attention to itself. Its function isn’t to tell us how Doran is speaking – we’ve just had a description of his voice – it is, like all the other words around it, to slow the line of dialogue, to let each one of those brutal nouns hit home with all its force.

The Problem with Zombies

Put the shotguns and the crowbars down, zombie lovers. Like you, I love the genre, and have spent many a beer-fueled evening arguing over the plausibility of retrofitting a bus with chain-saw slots and snow plows in order to escape a press of rotting, stinking, writhing undead. My problem is not with the zombies or those brave souls who battle them. It’s not even with the writers of zombie stories and movies, who produce some of my favorite entertainment. It’s with those writers who occasionally mistake the narrative purpose and utility of their brain-dead creations.

Before we get going, a clarification: I’m going to be using the term “zombie” in its broadest possible sense. (This will irritate the purists, to whom I say: too bad, it’s my blog.) In this post, “zombie” will indicate any creature that is both mindless and malevolent. In this sense, we loop in the “forged” of Robin Hobb, the Vord and the “taken” of Jim Butcher, the Others of George R.R. Martin, and the generic storm troopers from Star Wars. We can debate until the cows come home about whether these various groups are actually as mindless as literal zombies, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to point out that they are 1) pretty bad and 2) entirely monochromatic in terms of their motivations and emotional range.

So what’s the trouble? Well, in the hands of skilled writers, nothing. Zombies can be tremendously useful and unsettling. I love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead, Assassin’s Apprentice and Game of Thrones. It’s vital, however, to understand what zombies are good for, and to do that, we need to take a look at the main instance in which they are useless.

To wit: zombies make shitty principal villains. Any movie or book in which a zombie is the main bad guy is in serious trouble from the get-go. Consider this simple thought experiment: replace Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine with anonymous storm troopers and see what happens to Star Wars. Replace Joffrey and Cersei Lanniser with “Others.” Either revision would geld the story. Good villains have to be able to think and feel. If it can’t think and feel, it can’t win or lose, and if it can’t win or lose, there’s no real satisfaction in hacking off its head and mounting it on a pitchfork over the mailbox, no matter how much ichor drips onto the junk mailings from Publisher’s Weekly.

Yes, smallpox was “defeated,” but as far as I know, the World Health Organization didn’t stand over the final virus, fists clenched, teeth bared, like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

“Aha!” the zombie-fanatic exclaims. “But what about zombie movies, asshole? You know – the ones with actual shambling, brain-eating zombies? Zombies are the antagonists in those movies, and those movies ROCK!”

Yes and no. Yes, Dawn of the Dead rocks, but no, zombies are not the antagonists. The zombies are not characters at all. They are the weather.

They are the weather in exactly the same way the storm in The Perfect Storm is the weather, and they serve an identical function: they make life harder for the cast of human characters, and in so doing they force all manner of interesting conflicts and compromises, fuck-ups and epiphanies to the surface. This is the first good use to which zombies can be put.

And we need not limit ourselves to storms and zombies. The weather could be comprised of deadly trees (The Happening, Day of the Triffids), deadly blobs (The Blob), deadly birds (The Birds), deadly trans-dimensional insects (The Mist), deadly dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), deadly cold (The Day after Tomorrow), deadly freaky underground worm things (Tremors), deadly water pressure (all submarine movies ever made), deadly viruses (Contagion, et. al.), deadly genetically-modified hyper-intelligent sharks (that movie where Samuel Jackson gets chomped in half).

I could go on, but I think the theme is clear: it’s the “deadly” that matters, not the noun that follows it. Yes, of course, the strategy and tactics differ; you don’t use the same tricks to survive a vengeful fungus that you might when trying to endure the precipitous onset of an ice age. When I say that the type of adversity doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that the sort of drama that ensues in this type of plot is fundamentally the same: people struggle with each other and themselves in order to overcome or survive “the weather.” This type of story (when told well) generally doesn’t culminate with the defeat of the tree/worm thing/hyper-intelligent shark but with human endurance (or, in the case of several of these stories) the failure to endure. In Twenty-Eight Days Later, the point isn’t to beat the zombies – you can’t defeat them any more than you could defeat The Perfect Storm – it is to weather them. The struggle happens between the human beings.

The second use of zombies (again, in my broad sense) is as a weapon. This is what happens in Star Wars, where the Emperor wields his imperial minions, or The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and Saruman wield their orcs. In this case, we don’t need intelligence or emotional range out of the zombies any more than we need intellectual subtlety out of the Kurgan’s sword (although the Kurgan’s sword does kick some serious ass) or Voldemort’s wand. What matters is the villain wielding the weapon and the way in which he/she/it wields it.

To come full circle, a story runs into trouble when a zombie or group of zombies is treated as the antagonist. “Good Guys and Gals Versus Zombies” tends to fail, plot-wise, because it’s the equivalent of “Good Guys and Gals Versus Lightning.” If the guys and gals are all truly good, if they have no psychological demons or bad eggs mixed into the group, then there’s not much to write about. They do their best and either the lightning gets them or it doesn’t.

Almost all writers understand this at some level, and so it’s rare to see a story without a viable antagonist at the outset. In zombie stories, there’s always a megalomaniac or sociopath mixed into the group, a petty tyrant or at least a garden-variety asshole (Garden-Variety Asshole would be a good name for something. Not, like, a child, but a band or an album.) against whom the protagonists must struggle while they’re trying to endure the zombies. So far, so good.

What often happens, however, is that the writer mistakes the zombies for the true antagonist. As a result, the humans start out with their real and interesting problems, problems that emotionally animate the story, that keep us reading, but then those problems are resolved prematurely. For the final pages/minutes we’re left with what can only be a cooking-cutter climax between good and zombie. The special effects people will do their damndest to keep us engaged, and I like seeing a field of zombies decimated by a helicopter blade as much as the next guy, but if that’s the final conflict, it’s just a matter of hacking up meat – and there’s a reason we don’t have a thriving market for stories about people in the chicken plants chopping up the dead birds.

Galaxy Crushers and Miserable Shits; the Binary World of Villainy

Sometimes, hatred is awesome. Not, obviously, in the real world, where it makes you itchy, cranky, and disagreeable, but when dealing with books. There are few pleasures as exquisite as loathing fictional villains for hundreds of pages, groaning at their triumphs, cheering at their failures, and then, in the end, watching them get what they so richly deserve. I will stay up all night reading, regardless of the quality of the writing or the coherence of the plot, just to see a character I detest brought to justice. And there are some truly detestable characters out there.

William Hamleigh, the central villain of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, springs to mind, establishing his villainy early, awfully, and often. By the end of the book he’s killed and raped dozens of innocents, helped to slaughter Thomas Beckett, and generally made life miserable for just about everyone he meets. Pillars of the Earth is a long book. I would have read ten of them to see the end of William.

Interestingly enough, it’s not simply the badness of the baddie that makes us hate him or her. Darth Vader is pretty bad. He helps to destroy an entire planet. Hannibal Lecter isn’t so nice either. The thing is, I never really detest these characters. In fact, if the thriving prequel and sequel market are any indication, it seems as though most readers and viewers actually want more of Vader and Lecter (more on that here). They’re frightening. We accept that they must be defeated in the end. But then, even Agent Starling has a soft spot for Lecter.

It seems that we can classify villains into two broad categories: the loathsome and the frightening. There is overlap in the Venn diagram, naturally, but not so much as we might expect. Lecter: mostly frightening. William Hamleigh: most loathsome. That’s because the traits we find terrifying are not the same traits that we detest.

Let’s consider Lecter and Vader for moment. Both are scary, but they are also brilliant, extremely capable, and in the case of Lecter, funny. It’s hard to hate a character who’s brilliant and capable, even if he’s turned his (impressive) cloak to serve an evil, galaxy-crushing Empire, even if he wants to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

William, on the other hand, is somewhat dim-witted and relatively incompetent. He holds power by virtue of his birth, his gender, and his size. In this he reminds me of another execrable turd: Joffrey Baratheon. I wish George R.R. Martin would devote an entire novella to Joffrey’s demise; cut the Daenerys plotline and just give me chapter after chapter of Joffrey getting kicked in the shins. The thing is, neither Joffrey nor William is all that scary. I would be worried if I were in Joffrey’s clutches because of the advantages afforded him by his position, but I wouldn’t be scared of him personally any more than I’d be scared of William if I ran into him at a bar. They simply don’t have the personal stature, in and of themselves, to warrant fear.

It’s an interesting situation for a fantasy writer, one with, I think, an obvious conclusion: you really need two villains (unless you’re over the whole bad-guy thing), because the one the reader loves to hate won’t be the same one who makes the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Of course, in this, as in so many things, Tolkien was a step ahead. Sauron is terrifying; Saruman, once you take away his orcs, is just a little shit of a magician who doesn’t belong in the big leagues.

While we’re at it, let’s just get a list going. Who are the great villains of fantasy, and where do they fall on the spectrum?

War is not Tennis: George RR Martin’s Most Wanted

So. This morning I was feeling less than excellent because the small humanoid for whose care and feeding I am responsible was yowling at 5 AM and I’d been up until 2:30 the night before drinking whiskey and arguing with my friend Colin. To paraphrase the knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: we chose poorly. We are sane men.  We had not forgotten the fact that we both have children. But the emotions involved in this debate were just too powerful.

The subject of debate: Who is the best fighter in the George R.R. Martin universe? Stipulations: 1) Characters must be alive at some point in the series, 2) Consider the character as his or her prime, even if it falls outside the scope of the series (e.g. Ser Barristan Selmy), and 3) Only the books are a valid source of evidence (despite that ass-kicking scene with Drogo in the first season of the HBO series).

We came up with a short list easily.  In no particular order:

  1. Jaime Lannister
  2. Robert Baratheon
  3. Strong Belwas
  4. Barristan Selmy
  5. Quorin Halfhand
  6. Loras Tyrell
  7. Brienne of Tarth
  8. Khal Drogo
  9. Oberyn Martell
  10. Gregor Clegane
  11. Sandor Clegane
  12. Syrio Forel
  13. Bron

Then the shouting began. In a nutshell, Colin was arguing for Gregor Clegane and I was arguing for Khal Drogo. Colin’s argument hinged on the following principle: all these people kick ass, and when it comes to an ass-kicking contest, the guy who’s almost eight feet tall and can wield a six foot sword with a single hand has an overwhelming, undeniable advantage. He cited as corroborating evidence the importance of weight in boxing, UFC, and wrestling, pointing out that a featherweight will never beat a heavyweight, and all these guys (and Brienne) are featherweights compared to Gregor.

Our discussion went like this (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW):

Me: The Red Viper almost killed Gregor.

Colin: But he used poison. And he didn’t kill him. And the Red Viper died.

Me: Sandor Clegane seems to think he can kill his brother at will.

Colin: Not fair. Sandor knows Gregor’s weaknesses.

Me: Loras beats Gregor in a joust.

Colin: Loras cheated, and Gregor was still going to chop his head off before Sandor intervened.

Me: But Gregor is stupid.

Colin: So fucking what?

I like to think my argument was more nuanced, hinging, as it did, on the idea that we should be considering first those characters who have fought the most people to the death. Experience trumps. This axiom immediately moved Belwas, Quorin, Drogo, and Bron to the top of my list. Unfortunately, very little is known about Belwas (but he does have all those scars) and Bron (but he does seem very confident that he could kill just about anyone). On Drogo, however, although we only see one fight, we have some very good information: among a warlike people he has been fighting nearly constantly his whole life without ever losing. Colin pointed out that Westerosi knights have done their share of fighting, but I countered that there has been peace in Westeros for a while now, and that a knight like Gregor mostly goes around killing potters and millers and fishermen and such – bad practice for fighting actual fights.

Although the argument kept us up half the night and led to some seriously questionable parenting the following day, the fact that we were able to have an argument at all suggests something important, something that fantasy novelists sometimes forget, but that Martin remembers: war is not tennis. To be sure, the tennis world has its upsets, but it also has a reliable ladder. The leading players tend to sit near the top because they win a hell of a lot more than they lose. If we pitted Federer against a high school tennis player, the high school player would win approximately never.

The business of battle, however, is more complex. While some novels would allow us to compile a ranking of fighters easily, Martin understands that there’s not a ladder, but a morass of shifting and unpredictable variables: personal style, the type of battle, the degree of preparation, the type of weapons and armor, weather, morale, confusion. Philosophers like to elide these variables with the simple phrase, “All other things being equal…” but a novelist of Martin’s stature understands that the exogenous variables are never equal. They are, in fact, what gives the work its richness and texture. The uncertainty is what keeps us guessing and reading. It’s what makes us (only temporarily, I hope) less than ideal fathers.

Ok, great. I said my piece. Now… out of the thirteen characters listed above, who’s the best?

More Bankers, Fewer Peasants

A great development in recent fantasy is the inclusion of banks and bankers. I can’t remember encountering a bank in a fantasy novel before, say, 2005. (Anyone want to jump on this and prove me wrong?) Now they’re all over the place. Joe Abercrombie has Valint and Balk, George R. R. Martin, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and Daniel Abraham, in The Dragon’s Path, the Medean Bank, which is crucial to a lot of the action.

This proliferation of banks is a great reminder of how attenuated the available cast of fantasy characters can become. We have the peasants prodding patiently at the mud, knights who have swords with names, disgraced knights, disgraced knights pretending to be peasants, noble knights who are not actually disgraced but need to pretend to be peasants for some plot consideration or other, merchants, tavern keepers, inn keepers, beleaguered farmers, rich farmers, whores, courtesans, various sorts of nobility, barbarians (in hordes or singly), prelates, priests, and monks (often disreputable or alcoholic), and craftspeople responsible for an array of commodities such as baskets and horseshoes. Pretty similar, actually, to the list of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That’s about it.

I understand, of course, that the idiom of most epic fantasy is pre-industrial, that the proliferation of vocations and avocations available those of us in the modern first world does not exist in that setting: there are no psychic hotline specialists, or app developers, or zumba instructors, or creators of new deodorant scents. Frequent famine, limitations on long-distance trade, inadequate markets and economic systems, as well as the brutal effects of war tended to limit options.

That said, we writers of fantasy sometimes take a limited set of options and whittle it down even further. I’m forever sticking merchants or beggars into my text before reminding myself that there are other options. Lots of other options. In the ancient and medieval west we would have found painters, illuminators of manuscripts, architects, composers, cartographers, engineers, midwives, translators, shipwrights, and tutors. If we venture from benighted Europe and head east of the Himalayas for our models, we find an even richer diversity upon which to draw. There were more types of craftsmen in Tang China because there were more types of craft: makers of porcelain or keepers of silkworms. Pressers of paper. Builders of clocks. There were astronomers and doctors and creators of all manner of cosmetics.

Clearly we, as readers of fantasy, might not find the same fascination with a grower of silkworms that we would with an invincible barbarian warrior. Violence sells, sex sells, politics sells, but the engineer devoted to constructing that armillary sphere? Maybe not so much. As for the peasants? Well, there were a shitload of them.

Nonetheless, I’m encouraged when I consider the true array of options available, and delighted every time I come across that unexpected yet utterly appropriate character: a judge, a glazier, or, yes, a banker. I wonder what professions, fields, or lifestyles I’ve left out? Anyone with thoughts on writers who are particularly effective in pushing past the boundaries of stock fantasy types?