Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Trust and Balance Issues

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is
really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” –Mark Twain

If you’ve watched Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, you may remember the scene where Gandalf instructs Pippin on how to behave at the court of Lord Denethor. After delivering his little spiel covering all the things Pippin shouldn’t say, poor exasperated Gandalf finally tells him it would be better not to speak at all.

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of people offer similar-sounding advice to aspiring writers, advice I have sometimes given myself. And I’d like to set the record straight, if I can. First and foremost, writing is strongly a matter of style. Everyone has his or her own opinion as to what works and what doesn’t. Some people enjoy bold, fast-paced plots; others prefer stream-of-consciousness. Some like angsty characters and dark settings, others don’t. Clearly, then, trying to define universally popular style parameters is about as effective as flailing around in quicksand. Though maybe not as deadly.

For instance, when authors broach the subject of dialogue tags, two opposing questions invariably rear their ugly heads. Keep the tags simple? Or use variety? Many writers will tell you that “he says, she says” is quite sufficient for the task and that anything more grandiose is extraneous. Others will disagree. But before we start asking who’s right and who’s wrong, why don’t we look for a middle ground together? In order to do that, I think we should start by defining the goals of these two conflicting rules.


Rule One—Keep Tags Simple:  Beginning writers usually do not have the necessary skill and discipline to recognize when their prose is too wordy and superfluous. Even experienced authors struggle in this field, so instead of spending hours explaining to their fresh-faced followers how one colorful dialogue tag is fine while another is too much, it’s far easier just to lay down a rule. When in doubt, err on the side of sparse. Likewise, referring to my opening example, Gandalf has no way to predict how Pippin will behave and whether he will use common sense, so the wizard cannot be certain if it is wise to trust his friend. Without the addition of one-on-one training and loads of experience, even the most well-crafted blog post out there is not likely to turn an inept storyteller into a brilliant one. That takes skill, discernment, and patience.


Rule Two—Use Variety:  I’ll admit—I tend to camp out on this side. Maybe I’m OCD, but when I read the word “said” fifty times in a page, I start wanting to poke myself in the eye with a stick. Why? Well, first and foremost, many writers will tell you to avoid repeating non-filler terms too often in close proximity, except for effect (filler terms such as “a”, “and”, “the”, etc…, however, are fine). Without pointless redundancies, prose reads more smoothly. But another reason why simplification of tags bothers me is that “said” is a very flat word. It indicates nothing of tone or emotion or force. Who knows what’s going on in the speaker’s head? Frankly, the lack of spice and expression gets boring pretty quickly, not to mention choppy. And because I’m super-nitpicky, these details can negatively affect my enjoyment of a story. (But I’m working on that. *sheepish grin*)


If you’re like me, you’ll see right away that both sides have a point. Simplicity and variety are excellent qualities, but they are not mutually exclusive. And I’m convinced we can achieve the best of both worlds. Rather than following the letter of the law, let’s follow the spirit. In other words, now that we know the intention of both rules, what can we do to solve the problem? When you dress up to go out, some of you probably use a touch of perfume or cologne. But surely you don’t pour the entire bottle over your hair. Likewise in writing, where descriptive language is meant to accent, not to overpower or distract.

With this in mind, why don’t we move on to adverbs. Now, these little fellows get a bad rap. Almost everywhere I go, I see people counselling others to cut them. We have verbs; we have adjectives; who really needs the foolish little adverb? Personally, I was trained to use them like they were going out of style, and only in recent years have I come to accept that, as with the dialogue tags, both sides of the argument have valid issues to bring to the table. Perhaps once more we can find a middle ground. In my mind, adverb usage is a lot like tightrope walking, more so than the “he says, she says” conundrum. For instance, if I were to write a fantastically long sentence completely full of entirely extraneous and excruciatingly boring adverbs, you might understandably struggle with the unbearably strong urge to violently punish me. Yet when an author uses adverbs intentionally and tastefully, he or she enhances their piece.

Perhaps the adverb’s greatest weakness is that some writers shamelessly employ it to hide weak wording. I’ll admit—I’m frequently guilty of that myself. And when I read through my work and stumble upon one of these unforgivable sins, I have to ask myself what its function is. Is it pulling its own weight, or is it dragging the story down? Consider this sentence:  “Elsa clumsily tried to open the door.” Ask yourself, what is Elsa doing? More specifically, what verb am I using? Compared with some of its cousins like “attempt” and “endeavor” and “strain” and “struggle”, “trying” is just the weakling on the block. Bolstering him with an adverb is like feeding a toddler hamburgers so he can lift a car. Sorry, not happening. So instead of cheating and hoping to slip by with less than stellar verbiage, I ought to just rephrase myself. Sometimes that involves stepping out of the box to get a different angle. Now I can write “Elsa fumbled with the doorknob.” Problem solved. Poor inept Elsa.

Let’s try another shall we? “‘You’re uglier than a frog,’ Elsa said angrily.” Well I don’t know about you, but when I’m upset, I don’t say stuff. I sneer, shout, growl, hiss, frown, snap, etc… Adverbs should never be employed as getaway cars to avoid fixing a feeble setup. There are about a bazillion (numbers not accurate) wonderful synonyms you can use, each with its own implication. Which means it’s time to learn your connotations, baby. Just picture yourself juggling grenades, and you’ll get the idea. (So that might have been a slight exaggeration.) Believe it or not, bits and bobs like this really slant the tone of a piece, even when the reader doesn’t understand why. You may not notice that the descriptive language in a passage is stronger, but you feel that the scene is more powerful. You may not realize the verbs are more active, but you love that the story is rife with tension. Every. Word. Matters. When it comes to writing, the scalpel and the chainsaw are equally important.

At this point, if you’re of the “Adverbs are Evil” camp, you’re probably cackling to yourself and wondering how I’m going to dig myself out of this hole. Clearly I went and forgot which side I’m on. It happens. Be that as it may, I’m not going to rant any longer about proper and improper usage, since I myself am still actively learning—as every writer should be. So here’s my challenge to you. If you have the time, go back and read this post again, paying special attention to the adverbs I’ve employed. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion, and I’m not going to stand here and claim that I have the perfect balance or that I’m an expert on the subject. What I have done, though, is given you an example of how I, personally, believe adverbs should be handled. Now it’s up to you to decide whether you agree.


  1. OMG. I really love how you used Gandalf and Pippin's scene to explain this, because honestly, this is hilarious. And definitely finding the balance is the key idea, and as you said, it all depends on whether that word adds to the story. Amazing post, I shared on Twitter!

    1. Aww, thanks! This comment totally made my day. :) You can learn a whole lot from The Lord of the Rings. I studied it as my literature course for an entire year, and I think it was the best time ever spent. Thank you again, and thank you for sharing on Twitter! :)

  2. OMG. I really love how you used Gandalf and Pippin's scene to explain this, because honestly, this is hilarious. And definitely finding the balance is the key idea, and as you said, it all depends on whether that word adds to the story. Amazing post, I shared on Twitter!

  3. Hey! Visiting from the GTW's link-up.
    Haha, I just want to say your "(numbers not accurate)" made me smile. :)

    1. Thanks for dropping by! :) And I'm glad I could make you smile. :)

  4. This is a really cool post. ^ ^ I really like how you used the Gandalf and Pippin scene too. Both points are tricky. Action beats is a great variant for speaker tags and adverbs are necessary sometimes, though some authors swear they are the devil lol.

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. Thank you! Yeah, balance is tricky, but agree about the actions beats. Then your characters aren't just talking--they're living and moving and breathing like normal people. Personally, I find body language fascinating. I always feel bad for writers who hate adverbs; they're missing some pretty good stuff. :)