The Writer’s Craft #38 – To Hiss the Unhissable

Joe Mahoney

Joe Mahoney is a broadcaster with the CBC, an author of short stories, and a member of SF Canada. His Blog, Assorted Nonsense, is online at

Far be it from me to criticize someone of J.K.Rowling’s stature. Obviously she knocked Harry Potter out of the park. That kind of success is almost beyond criticism.

But I’m going to criticize her anyway.

I read the entire series out loud to my daughters. We all enjoyed it immensely. But one habit of hers never failed to take me out of the story. It was this:

“Get the door,” Aunt Petunia hissed at Harry.

I defy anyone to be able to hiss “Get the door.” Is it possible to hiss without a sibilant?

Perhaps I will be accused of not trying hard enough. Maybe, if I really tried, I could hiss “get” or “door.”

But the issue here is not so much attempting to hiss without a sibilant, it’s that every time I encountered a character attempting to hiss without a sibilant I just had to attempt to hiss the words myself. Forcing me to leave the story.

I realize I’m being picky, that this sort of thing wouldn’t bother your average reader (it certainly didn’t affect Rowling’s sales). It’s just that I work hard to keep my readers immersed in my stories, and I would be chagrined to learn that instead of losing themselves in my dream my readers were busy attempting to hiss the unhissable.

All of which begs the question: what makes you hissing mad about the stories you read?

17 thoughts on “The Writer’s Craft #38 – To Hiss the Unhissable

  1. oh oh Joe… you forgot to check with your dictionary on this one 🙂 As a reporting verb, hiss means ‘to whisper something in an urgent or angry way.’ As a tag in direct speech, you don’t need an ‘s’, it is the tone or inflection that is important.

    But to stay on this topic, I think what is happening in Rowling’s work is the issue of ‘brit english and culture’ versus American.

    I got irritated with the puddings and foods he was always eating. All meat and no veggies. There’s nothing California about that. And that word ‘er..’ which Harry uses like pepper on a bland dish. But last night I read an article written by a Brit, and twice in his quoted speech he used the word ‘er’. Nails on the chalk board.

    I don’t get mad so much as irritated, and this happens with every book that I read. Clive Cussler inaccurately described northern Argentina, which I just traveled to, in his latest release. The man obviously has never been there, so why write about it? Things like that. But it didn’t distract from my enjoyment of the book.

  2. I didn’t know that about hiss, either, Kari. Interesting. ‘Course whether it is technically correct is one thing and if it rubs someone the wrong way is another. Brit feel to Rowling never bugs me because my mother was a Brit and I’ve read enough old Brit stuff to feel at home there, too. One of my pet peeves is the “cheap blush”. By which I mean one you just know, as a reader, is supposed to make you feel something. But the author didn’t work hard enough, up front, to make the reddening of the character’s cheeks feel important.

  3. Using hiss like this instead of a ‘said’ dialogue tag is a classic ‘said bookism’. Listed in the good ol’ Turkey City Lexicon and (cheap blush) I’ve blogged about it. 😉

    So you’re not being picky, but you are trying to apply adult fiction rules to children’s fiction. The fiction I read to my kids is full of bad habits like this, but you can’t judge it. It is what it is.

    ‘Also might be an idea to avoid adding -ly adverbs to dialogue tags,’ he said excitedly.

  4. I get hissing mad at anything in a story that reinforces the whole “women are more complicated than men” thing. All people are complicated. To say that men are incapable of understanding what women are feeling is an insult to both genders: it says that men are stupid and callous at the same time that it says that women are arbitrary and nonsensical. In fact, anything that lumps an entire category of people together and says “they” are this way or that way makes me a litle bit nuts. I say this as a woman who would rather get a tooth drilled than go shopping for clothes or shoes, and who would rather get advice than sympathy.

  5. I don’t even mind a slow start. In fact sometimes I appreciate it. A classic comes to mind: Jack London’s “All Gold Canyon”. I’m willing to let the writer take his time to build it up. I can take an extra adverb and a said bookism or two. But what I hate more than anything is when it doesn’t go anywhere, when I feel at the end that I wasted my time. Boredom – that’s the enemy.

  6. Frequent or long interjections in other languages make me put a book down in rather short order. I have a reasonable handle on a few languages but even so, having to translate in my head at best slows the story and is irritating. Having to have a Latin, French, German, Italian, Russian, Vietnamese — and so on — dictionary at hand to get through a fiction book puts me off both book and authour.

  7. This is so true! As writers we work to draw our readers into our world and keep them turning the pages, and since I write fantasy, “suspension of disbelief” has to be thrown in as well.

    I can get in a hissy-fit over supposed historical or period works in which the heroine or hero speaks and acts in ways a person of that period never would–a “Valley Girl” dropped into Regency Period England, for instance…unless of course, this is a time travel piece. 🙂

  8. Rape scenes. I know they’re sometimes necessary, but if they’re in there, I want a *very* strong reason.

    I don’t have a problem with characters hissing non-sibilants, or laughing words either. (“No way!” he laughed.) But — I avoid them in my work because editors might consider it bad writing.

  9. Thanks for the responses, everyone. And Kari, I must admit I never considered hiss as simply a reporting verb disassociated with the letter s. I guess the lesson there is not to assume one understands the meaning of a word just because it appears obvious.

    A little anecdote along those lines. When I was in High School we read The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which the word “phlegmatically” crops up near the beginning of one chapter. I read the book with a dictionary close at hand and when I encountered phlegmatically I looked it up (um, unlike the word “hiss” which, I must confess now, I never dreamed of looking up because it never occurred to me that I might not know the precise meaning of a word as obvious as “hiss”). So I knew that phlegmatically meant showing a slow and stolid temperament.

    In English class the teacher read that passage aloud, and the line:

    “Any trade doing here?” he asked phlegmatically

    After which he announced to the class that it meant the character spoke while clearing his throat. Being a bit of a smart ass, I told the teacher before the whole class that he was wrong, that it meant speaking in a way that exhibited a slow and stolid temperament. He accepted my correction graciously, and for years I told the story of how dumb my English teacher was that he should get something like that wrong.

    And just now I looked up phlegmatically to see the exact definition and discovered that in fact it DOES mean what my High School English teacher said it means. It also means what I said it means. What does that mean? It means that I’m not a smart ass at all, I’m just an ass, because I did not understand the correct meaning of either phlegmatically or hiss.

    It also means I ought to spend a lot more time immersed in a dictionary.

  10. “All of which begs the question: what makes you hissing mad about the stories you read?”

    Argh, it’s when someone says, “begs the question,” when they mean, “asks the question.”

    (One of my favorite bands commits this error in their lyrics and it bothers me there, too.)

  11. It could be argued that the way I used “begs the question” has entered the vernacular. However, I won’t use that arguement. Instead I will just admit that I did not know that, and I promise to use the phrase correctly from here on in. Thanks for the education Ron!

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