Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

When I was starting out with my writing, everything I read - everything I learned - preached "show, don't tell." They talked about using "stronger words" to present what was happening instead of using adverbs to support. As a person with a very large vocabulary, I had dozens of words at my disposal. I thought I was doing everything right. Until....

Someone came into my first critique group, before I'd been published, someone who HAD been published. She critiqued one of my chapters and pointed out all the flowery dialog tags I used. Here I thought I was showing mood and personality by choosing something other than said, which, to my "learning the craft level" brain was stronger. She taught me that "said" is an invisible dialog tag. While I found it repetitive and unimaginative, she pointed out the more descriptive tags I was using were 1) not necessarily referential to speech, and 2) called attention to themselves. As a newbie, I was stunned. Her comments went against everything I'd been taught. Everything I'd learned. Except she had something I didn't. A book contract. A professional editor. So while my initial response was "who are you, and where do you come off telling me blah blah blah..." I stepped back and considered my position compared to hers. I was still learning the craft. She'd learned enough to get a book contract. So I calmed down, remembered that critique groups are there to help you get better and that constructive criticism helps you grow. Asked her some pointed questions. Funny, she quickly realized she'd aligned herself with a bunch of neophytes and left the group in short order. She needed a group with more experience that would see beyond the things we were still learning.

She was right, of course. I still find myself wanting to slip into more colorful dialog tags from time to time, and my more experienced critique group lets me know every time I use one. Those dialog tags do have a place in the prose sometimes, but for the most part, they should be limited to "said" or "asked" or a similar form of speech. These words are, in fact, invisible, where as something like "she avowed" tends to stand out. It draws attention to itself.

Touched by the Sun
I've learned much in the sixteen years that I've been writing. If you've read my first novel (TOUCHED BY THE SUN) you might still run across many rookie mistakes. In attempting to convey a foreign accent, some readers have found my Italian hero's speech stilted. I was going for "realism," but sometimes realism is better portrayed with impressions from the person on the other side of the conversation than by "stilted" conversation. I did go back to update the original book (THE TREASURE OF ST. PAUL) on its tenth anniversary to correct some of those rookie mistakes, and my hope is that the book is at least easier to read than it was in its original form. It might still have its warts, but it also gives my fans an opportunity to see how much I've learned, how my writing has improved along my journey. I still love the story, warts and all.

So writing lesson for the day. If said or asked isn't strong enough to portray feeling or emotion, use an action beat instead.
He spun on a heel to face her, pointing an accusing finger. "Why are you stalking me?"
 instead of
 "Why are you stalking me?" he bellowed.


  1. Good points, and something hard for new writers to accept for all the reasons you stated. I'm reading a book right now, and the author admitted he was simply writing for fun and didn't expect to distribute beyond family and friends. I'm not sure he used "said" at all, and it's a constant distraction. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King has an excellent chapter on dialogue tags.