Part of my day job involves working with writers to help them strengthen their writing skills. Because these are most often new writers, I tend to see the same issues cropping up across the board. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post discussing a few of those issues, and now I’m back with more.
1. Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats. I’m sure we all know that a dialogue tag is a short phrase, such as “he said” or “she asked” that lets the reader know who’s speaking.
It can be tempting to want to spice up our writing by spicing up our dialogue tags. There are even lists and blog posts out there giving us dozens of alternatives, but at the end of the day, simple is almost always better, for several reasons.
First, we want the reader to move smoothly through our story. Most of us are so used to seeing “said” and “asked” we barely even notice them, but throw in an “uttered” or a “bellowed” and our reading is interrupted, just for an instant, as the word registers.
Second, what many new writers use as dialogue tags aren’t dialogue tags at all. They’re action beats. One tell-tale sign of a new writer is a tendency to confuse/misuse the two so that you end up with characters snorting, smiling, hissing, waving, grunting, and growling their words.
“I’ll talk to you later,” Jane waved.
“Okay,” Bob smiled.
“I don’t like that guy,” Jim grunted.
“Well, I do,” hissed Jane.
The problem is, we don’t wave words. Nor do we smile them, grunt them, hiss them, etc. It’s not even physically possible. Go ahead. Try to snort a word; I dare you. Be careful not to hurt yourself.
I suppose an argument could be made that it’s technically possible to growl a sentence, but seriously, if I come across someone growling a sentence, I’m going to assume the zombie apocalypse has arrived.
These are actions separate from speaking, so they can’t be used as dialogue tags. If you really want your characters to engage in those actions they can, but you need a period to separate the action from the speech. For example:
“I’ll talk to you later.” Jane waved.
“Okay.” Bob smiled.
“I don’t like that guy.” Jim grunted.
“Well, I do.” Jane hissed.
The above example brings up a third reason we want to really think about whether or not to include the overused action beats I’ve mentioned. Picture the conversation. Jim speaks, and then grunts. Jane speaks, and then hisses. Never in real life have I conversed with people engaged in so much growling and grunting and hissing and purring, yet I see them every day in many of the papers I review.
This is where we can spice things up.
“I don’t like that guy.” Jim chewed on his toothpick, squinting into the sun as he watched Bob turn the corner.
“Well, I do.” Jane spun on her heel and followed after Bob, leaving Jim standing alone in the middle of the dusty road.
By strengthening our writing, we show readers how our characters are feeling without making them grunt, growl, hiss, and purr. All of which brings up our next topic:
2. Adverbs and exclamation points. Stephen King famously told us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. I wouldn’t go that far – I like a good adverb every so often – but his point is well taken. This, too, is an area in which stronger writing “shows” our readers how are characters are feeling instead of “telling” them. Consider the following:
“Get out of my sight!” he yelled angrily.
He clenched his fists and stepped forward to loom over her. “Get out of my sight.”
In the first example, I’m telling my readers how my character feels by using an adverb and an exclamation point. In the second, I’m showing my readers how my character feels by having him clench his fists, step forward, and loom over someone. Which one has the biggest impact? Which one makes you feel closest to the character and story? Hopefully, the second (if not, I guess my point is busted!).
I know how writers (including me) chafe at writing rules. The above aren’t rules; they’re more what you would call guidelines (thank you, Pirates of the Caribbean!) to strengthen your writing and bring your readers more deeply into your story.
Does that mean I always do the above correctly? Heck no. Like everyone else, I’m still learning.