Thursday, October 20, 2011

Adverbs and tags--oh my!!

Yeah, yeah.  Three is the tradition, but these are the two concepts I wanted to focus on today.  Because they in general, suck.

Tag:  Those short phrases at the end of dialogue that tell you who is speaking:

"Oh no," she said.

Adverbs:  adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and verb phrases.  They are those words that end in "ly" a lot:

"Oh no!" She clearly said excitedly.

Now, genre fiction generally plays fast and loose with both tags and adverbs.  We see them a lot.  And everyone uses them occasionally.  So why am I bitching?  I went to an MFA program.  Until I did, I had no idea I ought to be turning my nose up at adverbs and tags.  Or the real horror, tags with adverbs.  Okay, part of it is sheer MFA snobbery.  But actually, they have a really good point.

Tags and adverbs are lazy.  More than that, they really don't mean anything.

Let's take tags first.  The entire point of a tag is to tell you who is speaking.  That's all it does.  If it is obvious by contact who is speaking--two people in an empty room shouting at each other.

If Jane throws up her arms.  "I hate you!"
"You're no peach."  Amy slammed her hands to her hips.
"You suck!"
"It's not my fault Chris wants me."
"It's not either of our faults you are a skeezy ho."

See?  Absolutely no tags.  I gave you a description of the person when their voice entered, and then the alternating sequence of dialogue meant I didn't have to identify who was who at all.  Although you might find yourself wanting a little more emotion or description than plain dialogue, at times it is great for fast paced conversation.  You see the other thing I did.  Rather than using, "Jane shouted," or "Amy screamed," I gave you a visual of their anger and frustration with each other.  Jane throws up her arms.  What does that mean to you?  Frustration?  Anger? both?  Amy slams her hands to her hips in return.  She isn't backing down.  Maybe she's a little sassy.  You can put actual character building into identifying who is speaking.  This is effective no matter how many people you have in a scene.  We know someone spoke.  The quote marks are there.  So why not use the who to further the scene as well?

Which brings us to adverbs sucking.  The adverb is the lazy way of getting out of doing personality detailed descriptions of what these people look like, sound like, and any other sense you can think of, including the sixth.  Writing with adverbs, you rob yourself of clear communication to your reader of who these people are and what they are doing.  Reading adverbs, you are being robbed of the writer's vision.  You may stick yours in in its place, but you are losing beautiful nuances the writer could have given you to deepen the reading experience.  Finally, it confuses point of view and distances your character from your reader.

Let's take two simple lines:

“Why?  Lucy cried.  “Why do you care?”
“Because I love you!”  Evan said angrily.

Okay.  Lucy cried.  Is that a defiant shout, or is she on the ground with tears streaming down her face in utter defeat.  We have no idea.

Evan said angrily.  All right.  Angry.  How does this guy get angry?  If I pick any two people I know and picture them angry, I get a very different picture due to their personalities.  Is he screaming at her?  Is his voice a cold, quiet, cut.  Who is he angry at and why?  Which brings us to the point of view problem.  If I have been troddling along firmly in Lucy's head--her thoughts, her concepts, her imagination and emotion--well--when "Evan said angrily" comes up there is a dysjunct.  Is that her perception of him?  That he is angry?  Why does she think so?  What markers does he give?  She could even be wrong.  We don't get any of that from "angrily".  Worse, we might end up in Evan's head in a sudden jolt as we assume this is not her perception of his anger, but actual factual and we are supposed to be feeling his emotions.  And now we're all split in half and confused and tend to not emotionally bond to either character quite so much.  

Here.  We'll look at two different versions of that same exchange.  So what we had was:

“Why?  Lucy cried.  “Why do you care?”
“Because I love you!”  Evan said angrily.

Let's look at how we can expand this with example number one:

“Why?”  Lucy's words flew from her mouth as quizzical as owls, but with talons to gouge him to match.  “Why do you care?”

“Because I love you!”  Evan's shout resounded in the empty space inside her, but he already looked away.

Let's try this again, just to see how we can get a different effect from the same, vague, original lines.

“Why?  Lucy cried.  “Why do you care?”
“Because I love you!”  Evan said angrily.

“Why?”  Tears raged stinging tear beds down Lucy's face.  She had to hack through snot to ask him what she could not stop asking herself.  “Why do you care?”

“Because,” Evan's voice fell on her as tentative as the first snow.  He held her with his dark brown eyes, even as every muscle in his body tensed and contorted at her words.  “I love you.” 

Difference.  It's a fun project.  I just made these lines up, but if you open a book and start replacing the tags and adverbs, it can be an amusing writing exercise.

For those of you who love books that have adverbs--don't throw the baby out with the bath water.  I know a lot of great books that are adverb and tag heavy.  Much like the writing exercise, I'll argue a fun mind game is to slow down and think about what you have imagined into the space of those empty words.  You'll find it often says as much about you as the novel.  

I like to deepen conversation by having no, or even very brief, descriptions--emotion or senses.  Some feel this may slow the book, compared to fast flying and fancy free adverbs.  Actually, I've gotten more feedback that I'm skeletally quick.  

So if you go into the pages today, boys and girls, keep an eye out for those adverbs and tags.  


  1. This blog interested me because I took writing classes that suggested just using "he said, she said" repeatedly because readers get used to them and block them out. But I'm with you. The action descriptions are stronger. I had stumble into that realization myself, and there are still textbooks out there recommend:

    "No!" she screamed loudly.

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