This months E-zine is going to focus on two commonly misused functions in the writing world. By following the advice given in this article you can escape or bypass two mistakes novice writers often make.
Said-tags and adverbs are commonly linked together. Take this sentence for example:
“I love you, Ted,” Melissa breathed admiringly.
Did you catch them? “Breathed” is our said-tag and “admiringly” is our adverb. And--guess what--they are both incorrect! If a good agent or editor saw this, they’d probably toss your manuscript in the junk pile. Why? Read on and I’ll explain.
A said-tag is a dialogue attributor used at the end, middle, or beginning of a piece of dialogue. The only reason a writer uses a said-tag is to let the reader know who is talking. Most reader’s skip over these without noticing that they are there at all. That’s why you should want your said-tags to be invisible. A fancy tag can interrupt the flow of the story by drawing your reader out of it. Which is why you should keep things simple. Above I used the word “breathed” as a said-tag. “Breathed” is an action I used instead of the word “said.” You should never do this. The verb “said” is almost exclusively better than using any other verb.
A writer friend of mine calls these “said-bookisms” and they are evil. Here are a few examples of said-bookisms:
“Hamburgers are my favorite food,” Ella smiled.
“Don’t take me to that asylum,” Billy laughed.
Don’t do this. The only time you should use a verb instead of “said” is if your character is whispering. There is no way to show whispering through dialogue. If your character is yelling something, you’re probably using an exclamation point at the end of your sentence. Having an exclamation point and a said-tag using the word yelled is redundant.
Said-bookisms with redundancies should be weeded out as well. Here are a few examples of those:
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. (Dialogue shows that she’s apologizing)
“I have to go,” he excused himself. (Dialogue shows that he’s excusing himself)
“Your hair is yellow,” she pointed out. (Dialogue shows that she’s pointing that out)
“Where is your mother?” she questioned. (Question mark shows that it’s a question)
All of those said-tags are redundant because the dialogue or punctuation is showing those things already.
Also, you shouldn’t be afraid to simply use the word “said.” And you don’t need to have a said-tag at the end of every bit of dialogue. Readers are smart; they can guess who is talking. Another thing you shouldn’t be afraid to do is mix things up. You can use action-tags instead of said-tags. That is substituting your “said” with action. Here’s an example:
Jimmy walked to the door. “It’s raining outside.”
It’s as simple as that. So mix it up! Keep things fresh and your readers won’t get frustrated… or bored. Now we can move on to topic number two.
Has anyone ever told you that you need to show and not tell? Maybe that reason is because you’re using adverbs incorrectly. For the most part, an adverb is just a verb ending in the suffix ly. Happily and sappily are good examples of this.
Remember that sentence about Melissa way back? “Admiringly” is an adverb that should have been cut. It tells us how to interpret her feelings instead of showing us her admiration. Here is a way to show in that scene:
“I love you,” Melissa said. She stroked the fuzzy chin of her teddy-bear and tucked it under the covers next to her.
Did you see it? I added sensory details in “fuzzy” and described what Melissa is seeing. And I think it really makes a difference. Adverbs aren’t evil, but they certainly aren’t good, either. Now go apply that rule to your writing and see if you can see after showing… (erm.) If you can’t… keep an eye out for a future E-zine, or go read a book. Figure out how your favorite authors describe things. What words do they use? How many senses do they give you?
And that’s it for this article. You should have a pretty good grip now of what those annoying little said-tags and adverbs are all about. So let’s recap really quick…
“I love you, Ted,” Melissa breathed admiringly
should be changed to
“I love you, Ted,” Melissa said. (I promise that rhyme was unintentional.)
And we’re done!
Check back for next months E-zine: Suspension of Disbelief
E-zine copyright Christian Miles, 2009