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"Quoth the Raven, Nevermore" -- by Karla Brandenburg

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.

I've learned much in the sixteen years that I've been writing. If you read my first novel, 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 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.

Posted by Karla Brandenburg 14 Jul at 03:54
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Responses to this blog

Venlik 14 Jul at 11:21  
Indeed, many of the lesson we learned about writing have turned out to be merely things to unlearn. I suppose fashions change, so do fashions in writing, so maybe a middle course is more sensible than blindly following the advice from a particular period. I don't know.
Karlabran 17 Jul at 07:27  
Thanks for you thoughts, Venlik.
Rellrod 17 Jul at 18:39  
Well said!
Karlabran 18 Jul at 08:31  
Thanks, Rick!
Larrymervy 19 Jul at 12:36  
Are we really talking about dumbing down here. As writers, should we not be pushing for readers - in a sensitive way - to be aware of the beautiful language we are leaving behind?
Karlabran 20 Jul at 05:00  
no, we are talking about not distracting with purple prose. "Said" is invisible, people expect to see that. "Avowed," is a a word people will stop and notice, thus interrupting the flow of the read.
Rzhowell 20 Jul at 13:26  
Are we really talking about dumbing down here. As writers, should we not be pushing for readers - in a sensitive way - to be aware of the beautiful language we are leaving behind?
We're talking about being aware of both the language we're using and of how it is received. If we use a beautiful word in an unbeautiful way, we're not doing it any favors; indeed, we're hastening its loss, by associating it with bad writing. There are places and ways where drawing attention to the language is an excellent thing, I agree with you that "flow" shouldn't always be the writer's highest goal, but dialogue tags are very rarely a good place to snag the reader's attention.
Jonica 20 Jul at 19:13  
The best books I've read, the books in which I lose myself the most, are books where I don't see the author. I, as a reader, prefer lean language. As a writer, it sometimes feels hard to resist. My writing style had been described as "detached."
I wonder if there is a middle ground between lean and detached.

Mrspattie 21 Jul at 07:12  
Very good advice
Magnusholm 23 Jul at 14:18  
I never used avowed in my writing yet, but I now look forward to using it in lieu of a middle finger salute.
But I can't imagine it being used instead of said. Can somebody find a reputable example?

"You'll pay for this, Paris." Menelaus avowed revenge. "I'll get you a***ole."

Paraphrasing Homer here. (The ancient Greek, not Simpson).
R Magnusholm
Make Literature Great Again

Karlabran 24 Jul at 05:08  
I never used avowed in my writing yet, but I now look forward to using it in lieu of a middle finger salute.
LOL - well that's one way to use it!
Almo 12 Aug at 07:05  
An excellent post, Karla. I'm a latecomer to this comment thread but this is important enough that I have to offer my opinion. I totally agree with Jonica, that the writer should never be visible. If a word causes me to pause, even an unconscious pause, to interpret what the writer meant, it should be eliminated. Our job is to put our readers in a state where the "here and now" disappears. Anything that interrupts that state of flow must be revised/edited out. Thanks for a great post.
Magnusholm 12 Aug at 12:55  
Shock horror! Avowed was used by Stephen King & Owen King in Sleeping Beauties.

Willy seemed in no hurry to go, despite his avowed intention of doing so; he was packing a new pipe, selecting cuts from his front shirt pocket. “What do you mean?”
So there.
R Magnusholm
Make Literature Great Again

Karlabran Today at 04:11  
Yes, Magnus, but not as a dialog tag!
Karlabran Today at 04:11  
Thanks, Almo

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