In today’s Journal
* Quote of the Day
* Topic: Desperately Avoiding the Adverb
* On Tidbits
* Marketing Tidbit
* Of Interest
* The Numbers
Quote of the Day
“On a different subject, “… head shaking with rue” sounded odd. Is this just me or is the author desperately avoiding the adverb?” Mike Hall, in a comment on a post on The Passive Voice
Topic: Desperately Avoiding the Adverb
For many years, I’ve kept a running list of verbs writers use in dialogue tags to replace “said” and thereby, they reason, to “spiff up” the tag and make it more interesting to the reader.
The fact is, “said” is the only verb you need to carry dialogue. “Asked” isn’t really necessary because there’s a question mark. “Exclaimed,” likewise.
The thing is, dialogue tags should NOT be interesting. A dialogue tag that draws attention to itself pulls the reader’s attention away from the story.
In other words, a dialogue tag SHOULD be short, quick and boring so readers can all but skip over it. So “he said” or “she said” or “John (or Sally) said” really is as good as it gets.
The dialogue tag’s only purpose is to let the reader know, almost subliminally, which character is talking. The dialogue tag is not part of the story. It is an aside to help guide the reader through the story.
Now, to add a little tone without going to an all-out brief descriptive narrative that is NOT attached with a comma to the dialogue, you can also go with “mumbled” or “muttered” or “whispered” or “screamed” or “yelled.” You get the idea.
But notice that “mumbled” or “muttered” or “whispered” or “screamed” or “yelled” (like “said”) are all verbs that indicate an actual form of utterance. That’s the key.
When I read a line like “‘How much do you love me?’ she sang,” it makes me cringe. “Sang” is not a form of utterance. And if that’s followed a short time later by a second instance, something like, “‘Let’s get together soon,’ he demanded,” I’ll usually put the book down and stop trying to struggle through it.
Any dialogue tag should consist only of a noun or pronoun followed by a verb that indicates a form of utterance.
Likewise, it’s a great policy to NEVER use an adverb in a dialogue tag. That’s one of the very few absolute rules of writing that I personally adhere to and recommend.
If you ever write, “‘But you don’t love me, not really,’ she said sadly” you need to drop “sadly” and let the readers get that she’s sad on their own. Or maybe let them see that she’s sad in a brief descriptive narrative:
“Sally wiped a tear from one cheek. ‘But you don’t love me, not really.'”
So seriously, omit adverbs from dialoge tags. For that matter, use as few dialogue tags as necessary too. Brief descriptive narratives are a great substitute because 1) they stand alone, 2) they convey to the reader which character is speaking, and 3) they allow the reader to “see” or otherwise sense a bit of the scene.
But many writers, guided by misspoken comments like “Kill all adverbs” or “The way to Hell is paved with adverbs” from famous writers, tend to omit ALL adverbs period.
And that’s just silly.
Adverbs, like adjectives, are nodifiers, and sometimes modifiers are necessary. Generally speaking, adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs (but seriously, don’t use them in dialogue tags).
This all-or-nothing stance by writers creates excerpts of the kind Mr. Hall commented on in the Quote of the Day above.
Here’s the excerpted full sentence, in which author Megan Abbott was obviously striving (conscious mind) to make sense while intentionally avoiding (conscious mind) the use of adverbs:
“Even their names set them apart, sounding elegant and continental even though their father was an electrician and a living-room drunk and their mother had grown up eating mayonnaise sandwiches every meal, as she always told her daughters, head shaking with rue.”
Awkward narrative? Yes. And not because it’s a very long sentence (though it is not a run-on sentence). It is awkward because the phrase “head shaking with rue” calls attention to itself. Nobody would say that. I used to teach English as a Second Language classes, and even non-native English speakers would say that.
More likely people would say, “shaking her head ruefully” (or just “shaking her head” and let the reader pick up on the meaning).
Your number one job as a storyteller is to keep the reader engaged and reading. Any awkward construction you force on the story will risk causing the reader to stop reading, and in that moment, you will have failed in your job.
So I’m just sayin’, be careful out there, but don’t “desperately avoid” any part of speech. Don’t be so careful that you run readers off.
I was silly to think I could keep Tidbits going with only my responses to questions from new writers. Because frankly, very few new writers ask me questions.
That being said, if you are a new writer, and if you want to ask me a question, I welcome that. If I ever use my response to your question in Tidbits, I will not divulge your name. I share only for the benefit of other writers.
In the meantime, Tidbits will morph (has morphed) into short comments on writing, marketing and publishing that I think you might find of interest. Here’s the first.
To read about the “A+ marketing facility” at Amazon, by use of which you can “build up an extended listing” on a book page by using “different ‘modules,'” see https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/GHL7P99B7AA543CN. (Thanks to Writing Observer, another commenter on the post at The Passive Voice.)
Talk with you again soon.
See “Writing for Lonely Readers” at https://mystorydoctor.com/writing-for-lonely-readers/.
See “The Things We Hid” at https://www.thepassivevoice.com/the-things-we-hid/. This is very long. I suggest skipping straight to PG’s (also long) take. And the comments.
The Journal…………………………………… 990 words
Writing of WCGN 4: William J. Pinchot (tentative title, novel)
Day 1…… 1965 words. Total words to date…… 1965
Day 2…… 2624 words. Total words to date…… 4589
Day 3…… 1824 words. Total words to date…… 6413
Day 4…… 3160 words. Total words to date…… 9573
Day 5…… 3504 words. Total words to date…… 13077
Day 6…… 4704 words. Total words to date…… 17781
Day 7…… 2552 words. Total words to date…… 20333
Day 8…… 2234 words. Total words to date…… 22567
Day 9…… 2227 words. Total words to date…… 24794
Day 10… 3968 words. Total words to date…… 28762
Day 11… 4779 words. Total words to date…… 33541
Total fiction words for July……… 80449
Total fiction words for the year………… 609128
Total nonfiction words for July… 19820
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 145610
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 754738
Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 12
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 65
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31
Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.