This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
You have probably already heard the rule that you should only ever use 'said' in dialogue attribution. As I've said before, there are no rules when it comes to creative writing, but this is a pretty decent guideline…
'Said' is a nice, neutral word that your reader will hardly notice. As with all elements of your writing, you don't want to remind people that they are reading words on a page, you want them immersed in what John Gardner calls 'the fictive dream'. Or, as Elmore Leonard puts it:
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"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."
While researching this post, I found some terrible advice on the internet (I know, who would’ve thought?). It was an argument against the ‘always use said’ advice and it said (I’m paraphrasing) that the following bit of dialogue was boring:
“Hello,” Jack said.
“Hello yourself,” Marie said.
“Lovely day,” Jack said.
It’s dull, all right, but I disagree that the use of ‘said’ is the problem. If you feel the need to add interest to your dialogue with words like ‘shouted’, ‘gasped, ‘murmured’ and ‘hissed’, you'd be better off asking yourself why. After all, this:
"Hello," Jack gasped.
"Hello yourself," Marie whispered quietly.
"Lovely day," Jack yelled.
Is hardly an improvement.
Not to mention the fact that some dialogue tags are downright impossible. Have you ever tried 'hissing' an entire sentence? It's not easy.
Some dialogue tags are unintentionally hilarious, too, either because of the word itself ("I'm leaving," he ejaculated") or because of its juxtaposition with the preceding dialogue: "It's cold in here," he said icily.
So, what about adverbs? I’m not going to say you should never use them to modify your dialogue tags (I’ll leave bestsellers like Stephen King to do that), just that it’s always worth examining why you feel the need to add them and whether they're really necessary.
Using adverbs in this way, falls under the 'telling not showing' umbrella and it's often better to 'show' your reader things.
For example, if you’ve written:
“I’m going to explode!” Tom said angrily.
The adverb ('angrily') tells us that Tom is angry. To show his fury, you could write something like:
"I'm going to explode." Tom said, his hands curling into fists.
When looking at adverbs, you might want to consider whether your character's speech already conveys their emotion, or whether you can add actions (often referred to as 'business' in this context) to convey meaning.
Of course, sometimes you might require the brevity of 'telling' and the neatest solution to describing Tom’s anger is with an adverb. If so, great; it’s your book. Just make sure you're making a conscious, informed decision.
Another happy side-effect of adding 'business', is that you can often dispense with the word 'said' altogether:
"I'm going to explode." Tom's hands curled into fists.
To keep your writing flowing nicely, I think it's good to cut as many dialogue attributions as possible while still keeping it clear who is speaking.
Finally, always set out out your dialogue with a new line for each speaker; it makes it so much easier to read.
So, what do you think? Are you clutching your beloved adverbs to your chest at this very moment? Do you prefer using words other than 'said' in dialogue?