Saturday, 27 April 2013

On dialogue tags and adverbs

Okay, so this morning I was spammed yet again by someone wanting me to like their Facebook page. I was in a good mood so I clicked their link and it turned out the writer in question was building a sizable (as in a lot bigger than mine) social following before actually releasing a book. A worthwhile, idea, I thought, and then I clicked on a link to the writer in question's sample from their upcoming book.

And I came up with this editor's gem -


"... I don't want anyone else to die,” I barked, loudly.


I won't be mentioning the writer because that would be unfair, but safe to say, if I downloaded a book and hit upon this on the first page (and there were other errors before I even got to this) I would be closing the book straight away and not reading any further because it would scream "amateur" to me and my time is far too valuable to waste on people don't understand the basics of writing. Why?

Three reasons. Can you pick them?

Okay, in case you don't know, and if you want to survive as a fiction writer you'll need to learn, just from a grammatical perspective that comma is unnecessary. Kill it. "barked loudly" is grammatically correct, although it has its own problems.

Number two - think about the word "bark". What image do you get from that word? Is it a peaceful, quiet sound, or is it something annoying and loud?

I hope you got it. Of course, the word "bark" suggests something loud and annoying, which makes the whole word "loudly" completely redundant. Chances are, if this writer goes through a decent editor this will be picked up, but you can save your editor time by culling such unnecessary words yourself. Other examples would be "whispered quietly", screamed hoarsely", "ran quickly", etc. My own personal favorite is "he/she nodded his/her head", because there are so many other things you can nod, aren't there? (although this isn't a dialogue tag :-) )

Okay, third reason. This one is the most forgivable, and in certain circumstances I would allow it. When you hear the world "bark", what do you think of?

That's right. A dog.

Is this man a dog? No. Then why is he barking?

Stephen King's brilliant book On Writing puts this way better than I can, but there really is no replacement for the simple dialogue tag. Why complicate things by giving the reader the image of a dog when a man is arguing with his wife? As I say, in certain circumstances this might be excusable (please don't come back to me with examples - I've used the likes of "he grunted/snarled/growled/spat" numerous times, but all were relevant), but really I see no reason why "I shouted" wouldn't be perfectly acceptable here.

"... I don't want anyone else to die,” I shouted. 

is perfectly acceptable and allows the reader to move smoothly on to the next sentence. Sometimes special dialogue tags are necessary, and some times a dialogue tag requires an adverb to clarify its exact form. Usually it doesn't.

I have to get up early tomorrow so I'll sign off now, but just remember, keep your dialogue tags as simple as possible. Nine times out of ten adverbs are unnecessary and simple verbs such as said/shouted/whispered/cried will convey your meaning perfectly well.

Chris Ward
27th April 2013

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