Yesterday, while bemoaning my lack of blog post topics to my walking buddy over our post-walk stop at the coffee shop (she gets coffee; I get tea), I had a revelation. (OK, not a big heavenly-choirs, life-changing sort of revelation, just a tiny hey-I-can-turn-that-into-a-blog-post revelation, but I’ll take what I can get.) She was listing suggestions for a topic, and it suddenly occurred to me that two of them were variations on the same problem.
The two problems that caught my attention were said-bookisms and character tags (aka epithets). Said-bookisms are all those substitutes for “said” that some writers use obsessively in their speech tags – he shouted, she demanded, he stated, she whispered, etc. Character tags are those little descriptive phrases that replace the character’s name when the writer needs to identify a character by more than a pronoun – “the brown-eyed man,” “the younger woman,” “the scarred man,” “the second undergraduate.” They can also be little bits of stage business, habits that the character has that supposedly distinguish him/her from other characters – popping his gum, fiddling with her cigarette, flipping his baseball hat, twirling her knitting needles.
Usually, these two techniques are treated separately in how-to-write advice, with said-bookisms being dealt with under dialog and character tags under either characters or narrative/description. But they’re both techniques for doing the same thing – labeling something (a line of dialog or a character) so that whatever is going on is clear – they’re both extremely useful when used correctly, and they’re both overused or misused all too often.
Part of the reason for the mis- and over-use, I think, is that it doesn’t occur to a lot of people that it is just as possible to overuse a technique as it is to overuse a specific word. It usually takes a little longer for the reader to notice and get irritated by an overused technique, but the aggravation factor tends to escalate rapidly after that. And once a reader is sensitized, she/he is likely to find even appropriate, innocuous dialog and character tags annoying, possibly to the point of giving up on the story.
Fixing the problem begins, as always, with diagnosis. If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it. And since these two problems are related, whenever you catch yourself doing one, it’s probably worth checking to see if you’re doing the other.
Once you realize what you’re doing, the first thing to do is consider why you did it. If the only reason for choosing a different word is that you are avoiding “said” or “George” or “she,” then delete the substitute and put back whatever you were avoiding, and see how it reads. If it still makes you twitchy, find an alternative technique – rephrasing for clarity, using stage business instead of a dialog tag, or whatever.
Sometimes, though, it’s important that a character mumbles or shouts or whispers or whatever. If it is, leave the tag and get as much variation as you can by changing where it goes in the line – there’s a very slight difference in how a given line will read, depending on whether “he mumbled” is at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the dialog.
And consider the paragraph that reads: “The captain stared out the window at his new spaceship, waiting for someone to speak. The tall, black-haired man shifted uncomfortably as the silence stretched. Finally, John said, “Looks better than I expected for a refurbished tanker.” The ex-navy man nodded once as if to emphasize the words.”
If that author was simply trying to avoid “he” or “John,” then this would be a lot clearer if all those character tags except the first were replaced with “he” (unless there really are four different people standing around and not just tall, black-haired, ex-navy Captain John). But if the author was trying to work in a bunch of description and background information without stopping to info-dump…well, it didn’t work very well here, but taking it all out is clearly not going to do the job.
So we’re back to rephrasing. “Tall, black-haired, ex-navy Captain John stared out the window…” would, I think, be somewhat better (and certainly less confusing) than the original paragraph, but it does rather overload the opening with adjectives. I’d prefer to start with the name – “Captain John stared out the window…” – and then fill in physical description either in one blunt, straightforward sentence – “He was a tall man with black hair and gray eyes, whose rigidly erect carriage proclaimed him ex-navy” – or by working it into stage business or internal dialog (“He ran his fingers nervously through his black hair as the silence stretched, wondering if they’d given him this piece of junk because he was ex-navy.”)
The thing about said-bookisms and character tags is that they’re relatively easy to do. It took me a lot less time to write the first example paragraph than it did to do the “fixed” versions of the sentences. This means that even experienced writers are likely to find things like this creeping into their first drafts, especially when they’re writing fast to get something down before it evaporates, and because they are actual techniques (and not just mistakes), they can’t just be automatically taken out in the rewrite. One has to consider them carefully and decide. It can be a right nuisance, but it’s worth the effort.