Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Adverbs in Speech Tags

Technique Tuesday

Several months ago, I presented a minimal speech-tag framework. The third rule says:
Only apply adverbs to "said" that qualify the physical act of speaking. Using adverbs to convey something about the emotional state of the speaker is lazy writing. You're telling the reader something about the way the character spoke if you say "said loudly" (and more direct verbs like shouted or cried aren't appropriate).
A reader found my example and parenthetical comment about direct verbs confusing and asked for a clarification.
The job of an adverb is to modify a verb. Sometimes we need to qualify an action and we don't have a direct verb that does the job. So adverbs have their place so long as we use them sparingly (like that one).

We get in trouble, particularly in speech tags, when we confuse human actions and intentions. For example, consider a medic working on a battlefield. Saying that the medic cut quickly or cut carefully qualifies the action and gives us, as readers, evidence to infer the medic's intent. On the other hand, saying he cut viciously qualifies the intent behind the action and not the action itself.

So with a speech tag, I resist using adverbs because it's too easy to fall into the trap of qualifying intention (e.g., "he said disdainfully"): it's lazy writing because character's intention should be conveyed either through dialog or description.

The exception I allow is for adverbs that qualify the act of speaking. If a character has been speaking at a normal volume so that everyone in the conference room can hear and then turns to a companion and says something to that one person but doesn't whisper, you could use, "he said quietly."

You might point out that a beat like, "He turned to Fred and lowered his voice," would be a better way to do it than, "he said quietly." And I would concede the point on stylistic grounds.

Similarly, you should always use a direct verb (e.g., shouted or called) instead of a qualified verb (e.g., said loudly) if the direct verb can do the job. But occasionally no direct verb has the right sense so you need to qualify the closest verb. For example, if you wanted to describe a character nominally speaking to one group who raises his voice to be sure that someone else in the room will hear, he's neither shouting nor calling, so "said loudly" might be your best choice.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Verisimilitude, book 5 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net