Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Rookie Writing Camp Part II: 3 Fiction Rules for Pesky -Ly Words and Said

I'm not a big fan of the word "said."

In general conversation, its an okay word.  But in fiction writing, it's a menace. Let me back up for a minute. Have you read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King?  No, a survey box is not going to pop up, just a general question. If you've read the book, you have a clue where I'm going with this.

Here's the thing:  Dave and Renni are pretty adamant about sticking to only "said" and "asked."  I don't disagree with that, when you have to use them.  So if you've just begun your fiction writing quest, ditch commented, replied, questioned...and every other one you've been using.  They make you look like a rookie writer.  That's what their reason was.  Mine is a bit more detailed.  It goes something like this:

Do you remember memorizing sight words when you learned to read?  Do you know anything about readability?  In general, "said" and "asked" are sight words to your subconscious; your brain can read over the top of them, understand their meaning, and click into context without  interrupting the enjoyment of your story. Commented.  Exclaimed. Replied. Questioned. Challenged.  Nope, those words don't do that. They detract from your dialogue.  They pull your reader's attention from the story to the mechanics of your writing. That's bad.  Bad.  ( I heard that.  "But some of the best writers I know use those words."  Yeah, they do. To that I say, there are many ways to successfully fiction write. You can use these words and get away with it. But read the rest of this article before you decide.)

Rule Number 1:  Purge everything but "said" and "asked" from your dialogue.  

You're attempting to whine here and I know that.  You've taken that sentence:

"Let's kill John," Lola exclaimed.

and now made it:

"Let's kill John," Lola said.

But you desperately what to do something to decorate it like:

"Let's kill John," Lola said, lovingly.

I won't show you the red pen I just stabbed through your paper/computer screen on that word.  :-/

What's wrong with lovingly?

Nothing.  I adore the word "loving."

I don't adore the -ly construction.

Rule Number 2:  Search and destroy every -ly you find. Every. Single. One.

Let's put some parameters to that rule, shall we?  Obviously, there are some words that are naturally constructed with the -ly ending and they can be left alone. Adverbs are your nemesis here.  If the -ly word is attached to a "said", I can pretty much say across the board, DELETE.  If you're dialogue isn't constructed well enough to convey the meaning of that word, search for stronger verbs and play with it until it does. Further, those little -ly words are telling.  What do they tell?  Usually they tell something your dialogue has already said or they convey some movement or emotion that is better demonstrated with straight-forward action verbs and body language. This helps your characters become three-dimensional and your reader will thank you because the characters will become REAL.

Take a moment to search your current work in progress for -ly.  If you have dozens or hundreds, you're in trouble. Train your writing brain now to backspace those words as soon as they are typed.

Once again, though, we're back to how to enhance "Let's kill John," Lola said.

Could we use:  "Let's kill John," Lola said, removing a butcher knife from the drawer.

Really, there is no problem with that construction.  It reads well.  Your reader will get the point without getting stuck in your mechanics.  But as you work your way through the scene, if you do that construction over and over, you once again stick your reader in the midst of your writing mechanics. Not good.

But, what if we mix it up?

"Let's kill John." Lola removed a butcher knife from the drawer and tested the blade against her finger, drawing a bead of red, oozing blood.

I leave it to you.  Which would you rather do?

You have a ton of opportunity in these moments to present movements, visuals, sounds, tastes, smells, emotions, and body language.

You don't understand about body language?  What husband hasn't come home to a wife standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips and a frown on her face?  Does she need to deliver the speech?  If Lola's eyes gleamed and she licked the blood off her finger, what is that going to tell you?

Rule Number 3:  Whenever possible, remove the "said" and "asked" and put active construction in your sentences using movements, body language, and emotion.

Every person non-verbally conveys a message.  Few people sit still, and if they do, there's a reason. Nervous habits, casual behaviors, and common day-to-day activities bring your story from telling to showing.

As a test, take the last scene you wrote and eliminate all the speaker attributes. You're probably having heart palpitations now, because what kid didn't grow up learning to read with "said" and "asked" through the pages of their primers.  Well, how else do you expect kids to learn the mechanics of dialogue and to learn to read over the sight words without stopping?  You're a writer now, though. Move past those days. Imagine yourself in that scene. What would you be doing?  How would you be feeling?  Yes, put those in place with active -ed verbs and tell me your work isn't stronger.

If you need help, here's a few resources from my bag of tricks to get you started:

Empowering Character Emotions by Margie Lawson

Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist by Margie Lawson

The Emotion Thesaurus:  A Writer's Guide to  Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

How to Read a Person Like A Book by Gerard I. Nierenberg and Henry H. Calero





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