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  • Sarah McKnight

April Workshop - Dialogue Tags and Adverbs

This workshop was different from last month's. Several people in the group had requested a discussion on dialogue tags, as there's a lot of debate in the writing world about the best way to use them. Do we strictly use "said" and "asked" only? Do we pop in some variety once in a while? Don't use tags at all?

The answer is that there is no wrong answer. The use of dialogue tags (or lack thereof) is just as much a creative choice as any other part of writing. That being said (pun intended), it is still possible to have too much of a good thing.

My general advice is to stick with the 80/20 rule. If you're using dialogue tags, keep it simple. 80% of the time, "said" and "asked" is more than enough to get the point across. Some members even pointed out that they skip over those words entirely when reading. Sprinkle in some variety: sighed, gasped, laughed, questioned, etc. But keep it to a minimum. I will say that it is VERY noticeable to me when an author is clearly going out of their way to avoid "said". Find the right balance for you and have beta readers keep an eye out for your tag use.

But who says "he said"/"she said" has to be the end of it? Sprinkle in some action with your tag: "she said with a laugh", "he asked as he rolled his eyes". Or skip the tag and just demonstrate the action. "Oh really?" He rolled his eyes.

Choices like these can really change up the tone of your story. Keep that in mind as you write. The group and I had a long discussion about the differences and nuances between these three examples:

"Oh no!" she said with a gasp.

"Oh no!" she gasped.

She gasped. "Oh no!"

These three samples are all saying the same thing, but the way they are read is what makes the difference. "She said with a gasp" feels detached. It wouldn't be used for the main character, as the reader is meant to feel close to them. Perhaps this was said by someone the main character is observing? In the second example, it's implied that the gasp comes after the words. In the first, the gasp comes first. Depending on the situation, it is up to the author to determine the best choice.

We also discussed avoiding tags as a creative choice, particularly when there are only two characters conversing. Consider giving your characters specific speech patterns so it's easy to determine who's speaking. Maybe you have a character who curses like a sailor. Perhaps another speaks formally and does not use contractions.

Interjecting actions mid-sentence is another good way to set the tone of what your character is saying.

"Oh," she rolled her eyes, "I guess so."

"Oh, I guess so." She rolled her eyes.

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, I guess so."

The placement of the action can change the meaning of the scene, the character's tone, and influence what the reader pictures in their mind. If you want the reader to have a specific image in their head when they read a certain scene, this is something to think carefully about.

We also had a discussion on "good" vs. "bad" adverbs. I've seen a lot of discourse in the writing community about whether adverbs should be used or avoided altogether. Personally, I'm team adverb - IF used sparingly and in a "good" way.

So, what's a bad adverb? "She smiled happily." Of course she did. Don't we all smile when we're happy? There's no need to point this out. However, what happens if "she smiles sadly"? This, in my humble opinion, is an example of a "good" adverb. We don't normally smile when we're feeling sad. It makes me wonder what this character is trying to hide or what's going on with them. Don't point out the obvious with adverbs. Use them to change the meaning of something and create intrigue.

With that, the question becomes how many adverbs are too many? This is not an easy question to answer because it depends so heavily on genre as well as the author's personal style and preferences. Romance uses a lot of adverbs. Middle Grade and children's lit uses a lot of adverbs, especially "very", because young readers generally need that nudge to understand the difference between "happy" and "very happy". In YA and adult, it's advised to just stick with "happy" or "ecstatic". Don't overload your sentences in adverbs. If there's something you really, really want your reader to understand, add that adverb. If the point comes across just as well without it, skip it. This is another thing you can have your beta readers look out for.

I've always said creative writing is just that - CREATIVE. Part of what makes reading so fun is learning about each author's unique style. Frankly, readers don't typically notice and don't care if there's adverbs sprinkled everywhere, or dialogue tags that get a little too creative. The creative choices you make as an author are what matters. It's okay to follow guidelines; it's okay to break out of the mold. You do you. The group had a wonderful discussion full of insight, advice, and tips, and the biggest takeaway at the end of the meeting was this:

Write for yourself first.

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