Whenever I hear someone say that a written word, like “said,” is invisible, I usually cringe, since I don’t think of anything written as invisible, even in a metaphorical sense. But this is not that essay. On the surface, this short essay is about dialogue tags, but it’s also about how so-called masters, and even masters, can lead you astray.
Recently, I heard a writer read a fiction. It was one of the writer’s stronger pieces. In it, the writer had a character say something, and rather than use “he said” as the tag, the writer opted for what I would consider to be the ill-advised “he hissed.” Why is “hissed” inappropriate? Well, first, let me ask you to hiss, you know, the sound a snake makes, a deflating tire makes, etc. Okay, now hiss a word. Can’t do it, huh? (Perhaps there’s a word I’ve missed that’s comprised solely of s’s.) How about a sentence? Well, if you can’t even hiss a word, you certainly can’t hiss a sentence.
When I’d mentioned the gaff to the writer, the writer’s response was, “Well, that’s staying.” I said this was a mistake. “Tell that to Cormac McCarthy!” the writer said, the writer’s pissiness something just short of a hissy fit. And I said, “Given the chance, I’d let God know all about his mistakes.” The writer suggested I take a look at Blood Meridian.
McCarthy does, in fact, commandingly use the word “hiss,” that is, some of its various conjugations, in Blood Meridian:
“Sproule shooed his good hand at the buzzards and they bated and hissed and flapped clumsily but did not fly” (59).
It’s a great sentence, beginning with the ooh, ooh, ooh of “Sproule,” “shooed,” and “good,” ending with the sight-rhyming of the suffix-ending “ly” in “clumsily” with “fly.” I don’t know what sounds buzzards are actually capable of making, but this sentence does nothing to make me question the plausibility of their making this kind of sound. Cheetahs chirp, after all. Here’s another sentence from McCarthy:
“He shrieked and the bloodbat flailed and sat back upon his chest and righted itself again and hissed and clicked its teeth” (64).
Another strong sentence. The series of “ands” makes for brisk pacing in what is an action-packed sequence of events. As with the example above, I don’t know what sounds bloodbats are actually capable of making, but I don’t question the plausibility of them making this kind of sound. Plus, the assonantal sequence of those i-sounds at the sentence’s end is a nice flourish.
“He turned his leg to the fire for the light and folded his belt and held it and hissed down at the boy kneeling there” (160).
No problem here. Hissing is a way of expressing disapproval, getting someone’s attention, etc.
“On the eve of that day they crouched about the fire where it hissed in a softly falling rain…” (171)
Raindrops falling on a fire are likely to make a hissing sound.
“They rode through the long twilight and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west the mountains shuddered again and again in clattering frames and burned to final darkness and the rain hissed in the blind night land” (185).
This is another excellent sentence. McCarthy slows the pace down by using monosyllabic words (“and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west”), thoroughly evoking a long twilight ride, repeating the monosyllabic move at the end (“and the rain hissed in the blind night land”); and he slows the pace even more with various repetitions, the described sound of rain suffusing the scene with menace.
“He stood looking down into this gulf where the tops of the twisted evergreens hissed in the wind and then he started down” (211).
There’s a lot to admire in this sentence as well, not limited to the assonantal splendor of “hissed in the wind,” and the hissing effect of all those s’s: “tops of the twisted evergreens hissed…”
“The expriest at his side seized his arm and hissed and gestured toward the passing judge and the wind rattled the scraps of hide at the carcass…” (298)
The character’s hissing at something or someone makes sense.
So, McCarthy, in all the selections above, uses the hissing sound to unobtrusive and often interesting effect, and is successful in likening bloodbats, buzzards, humans, fire, and trees to snakes, lending a foreboding sense of treachery, of evil, to the novel’s overall atmosphere. McCarthy goes awry, however, in the following snippets of dialogue:
“El jefe, hissed the judge” (95).
“Even shares, he hissed” (267).
“Dont be a fool, he hissed” (267).
“Do him, he hissed” (283).
“Good lad, hissed the expriest” (290).
Try and hiss any of those sentences. It’s impossible. Disagree? Well, consider these passages from “Nits, Nips, Tucks, and Tips,” a tidy collection of technical admonishments, which you can find in Samuel Delany’s excellent book about writing, namely, About Writing:
The following two sentences are both wrong. Don’t write them.
1. “Oh, I really enjoyed that,” she laughed.
2. “Really, I just feel so…” she sighed.
The punctuation is wrong in both cases. Both laughing and sighing are fundamentally wordless sounds that human beings make. You can’t laugh words, nor can you sigh them. If you are not laughing very hard, you can laugh while you speak.
“Oh, I really enjoyed that,” she said, laughing.
The same goes for sighing:
“Really, I just feel so…” As she spoke, she sighed.
But both examples 1 and 2 above are actually run-on sentences.
Either they should be rewritten or they should be corrected:
“Oh, I really enjoyed that.” She laughed.
“Really, I just feel so…” She sighed.
Neither of these means, however, quite the same thing as 1. and 2. Each example is two sentences. They mean she spoke first. Then she laughed—or sighed.
A third and final error is very close to these but has some interesting ramifications. The following is also wrong.
3. “Oh, Billy,” she wept, “I’ve just been miserable since I’ve been back from school.”
It would be just as incorrect if you replaced wept with cried or sobbed. As do laughing and sighing, “to weep,” “to cry,” and “to sob” all refer to fundamentally wordless sounds people make. The same argument holds for them as holds for laughing and sighing.
To conclude, you can’t hiss a word or a sentence any more than you can laugh, sigh, weep, chirp, slurp, or burp one.
You could argue that McCarthy isn’t using the word “hiss” literally, that he’s using it metaphorically, but that would be rubbish, buncombe, a sad attempt to explain away a writer’s error in judgment.
So let’s fix McCarthy’s mistakes:
El jefe, said the judge.
Even shares, he said.
Dont be a fool, he said.
Do him, he said.
Good lad, said the expriest.
These sentences are, admittedly, dull, but better a dull sentence than a grammatically questionable one; and each sentence can be easily fixed, their dullness changed to something brighter, maybe even molten golden, by following each respective “said” with any number of apt and compelling qualifications and descriptors; or they can be left alone, their dullness a point of contrast against more elaborate constructions.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.