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Packing Heat 106: Swifties

Packing Heat is a podcast I've been putting out since 2008. My goal is to help other writers stay motivated, and to encourage them to take their writing to the next level. You don't need special gadgets to listen; Packing Heat plays in your browser, like YouTube. Or you can subscribe (and leave me glowing feedback) at iTunes! These are this week's show notes.


Newbie mistakes #2

There are certain tendencies I see often in newbie writing, particularly romance writing. Today, we’ll talk about dialog tags.

What are dialog tags?

He said, she said, I said.


One school of thought is that you should seldom use anything other than said. I do believe that makes for cleaner writing, but the newbie mistake I’m dissecting today is the use of an adverb within the dialog tag.


…he said angrily.

…she said sweetly.

…I said hesitantly.


If you do this more than once or twice per chapter, it is considered to be the mark of a hack writer. I found 19 in the 6000-word writing sample that inspired this series:




















Convey what’s happening with the dialog itself. Instead of telling the reader a character says something “savagely”, save some empty wordage and have them actually say something savage!



Stephen King explains his loathing of the dialog tag-adverb combo in On Writing. He makes a game out of piecing together outrageous pun-laden combos called Swifties, named for the Tom Swift series.

Here are some Swifties I made from adverbs I found in my sample text.

“Stop,” she cried haltingly.

“That truck ran over my dog,” he said flatly.

“Jerry didn’t come to work today,” I said absently.


Things to ask yourself when you look at adverbs in edits:

Is the adverb redundant?

Could I pump up the dialog so the emotion is clear from the substance of what’s being said?


Your Assignment

Search the current chapter of whatever you’re working on for adverbs. If you find more than two, really question whether they’re necessary.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
Yay! Can I add my two cents (for what it's worth as an amateur?). Seems one of the problems with adverbs is they tell instead of show. So if the line of dialogue really can't be punched up, I try to replace my wish for adverbs with actions that convey the tone. Ie., instead of:

"If you'd like,"he said (absently/anxiously) , maybe something like,

Tom gazed out a window, his eyes tracking a child playing next door. "If you'd like." or

Tom chewed on a nail, already bit to the quick, and glanced past me. "If you'd like."

I dunno. I actually like finding ways to convey mood through action.

I like reading your series, btw, dunno if I've said that before. :)
Jun. 2nd, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
one of the problems with adverbs is they tell instead of show.
Oh yes, you've really hit the nail on the head! Showing is one of the most important writing concepts. Sometimes I fantasize that I've figured out a new way to say show-don't-tell in a manner that totally clicks for writers on a gut level. I haven't figured it out quite yet.

I really love your examples--that sentence with Tom and the kid feels really sinister to me, in less than 20 words. Is the kid a creepy changeling? Is he going to get abducted? Is Tom a pedophile? The words are all simple and direct, too.

I like reading your series, btw, dunno if I've said that before. :)

Thanks! I was thinking of paring down the show notes to try to steer people toward the actual podcasts, but maybe that doesn't really matter much. If someone derives value from either the show or the notes, my job is done.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
I remember learning 'Show don't tell' back in early high school (long gone now) when I took a summer school course in creative writing. Always seemed such a simple concept to me, and I took right to it.

Then when I started seriously writing, I realized that I *still* tell instead of show, and though it is a simple enough concept to begin, it's a mother to master. For me, anyway.

I sent an ms to Lanyon's service last winter (at your encouragement actually, and yes, totally worth it, though sobering). One of his general comments was basically about how I need to show more and tell less (not said in those words, but that was basically it). I was horrified (okay, I'll admit a bit of hyperbole there, but close), because I'd thought that was one of my strengths. Heh. :) But I continue to improve, and do see now some of the ways I still do it.

Oh, please don't shorten the notes. :) I have listened to a couple of podcasts, but not usually. I don't have the patience for it; would much rather read (I'm one of the lightening fast readers). To be clear, that's _not_ about your podcasts, I get impatient with any kind of spoken explanation -- e.g., will only listen to radio shows in the car, don't watch TV at all. Hmm. If I had my act together, I'd get in the habit of downloading podcasts and listening to them during my commute.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
though it is a simple enough concept to begin, it's a mother to master
Thank you so much for sharing this experience. It's such a slippery concept, I think. There are so many elements to juggle while you're writing, it seems impossible to keep them all going at the same time. Show-don't-tell is only one of many things to be aware of.

I have listened to a couple of podcasts, but not usually. I don't have the patience for it; would much rather read
Okay, you've convinced me. (See how easy I am? Shameful, I know.) I feel the same way about video podcasts. I like to take audio podcasts and listen to them while I'm cleaning the house, or in the car--but video podcasts have be watched, really watched. If it's just a guy talking, then why bother making me go through all the trouble? Graphic design podcasts, sure. But not a guy sitting there talking about marketing.

Sometimes a listener lets me know they've downloaded my whole series to take on a roadtrip. It's funny to think of someone driving somewhere for 6 hours with me talking the whole way there and back! I assure them I would have let them join the conversation too were I there in person.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. I looked at something I whipped up today and it had next to none. Looked at something I wrote a year ago ... OMG. Delete, delete, change, change. LOL That was the first fiction type thingy I wrote so I must be picking something up if I've dropped the habit. :-)

Thanks for the tip. LOL
Jun. 2nd, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
Well hell, I hate when LJ logs me out and I don't notice. Grrr. That was me. Sigh.
Jun. 2nd, 2010 09:02 pm (UTC)
Hey, that's exciting to hear that your style would develop and mature in as short a span as a year. I'm so happy!
Jun. 3rd, 2010 05:11 am (UTC)
I know I have terrible adverbitis. I should be taking something for it, you know. A Big Red Editing pen LOL.

Excellent advice as always and an entertaining read as well :).
Jun. 3rd, 2010 08:58 am (UTC)
I'm pleased my lack of love for adverbs didn't upset you ;-)

I'm going to culminate the series in a show about how you could break all the rules and still be very popular. Maybe I should pick brains over here on LJ as to why it is people fall in love with books that have less-than stellar prose!

And I KNOW you polish your prose, so you don't fall into that category.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 10:06 am (UTC)
And I KNOW you polish your prose, so you don't fall into that category.

Holy crap, that's one of the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me, thanks for that :).
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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