Sunday, February 10, 2013


Maybe it's because I'm working on a novel about traveling theatrical players in post-Regency England, but I find myself struggling against the urge to stage-manage every move my characters make.

Of course, I'm writing all their dialogue; I'm the author, that's my job. (Although, as any writer will tell you, fictional characters often have their own ideas about what they'll say in any given situation. And they almost always know best!) But I'm getting very dictatorial about how those words should be delivered.

Most writing gurus will caution that adverbs are the work of Satan. But I spend a lot of time on these bon mots, and I want to make sure the reader hears the correct inflection for maximum impact. So I find my dialogue riddled with stage direction: my characters say things "wryly," "slyly," "stoically," "innocently," "eagerly," "miserably"...well, you get the idea.

Once in a while, an adverb hits the spot exactly right, but if I use them in every other sentence, it starts to look like a ping-pong match on the page. I don't advocate giving up adverbs altogether, but less is more; in the editing process, they are first up on the chopping block.

But even after I cut back on the dreaded adverbs, I find I still have a hard time letting my characters just, you know, speak. In early drafts, they rarely just "say" something. Instead, they "observe," "suggest," "echo," "falter," or—my personal favorite—"riposte."

I like to think I'm getting better, sifting through the chaff of these over-eager (over-anxious?) verbs to select those few that actually work. It's an uphill battle, but, luckily for me, cooler heads prevail. Most of the time, my characters let me know when they'll accept my micro-management, and when it's time for me to back off and trust the reader to get the point.


  1. My characters like to do stage business, which keeps me from having to think up a good adverb.

  2. My characters perform their dialogue extremely well, I'm just always afraid the reader won't notice without a little nudge from me!

  3. I almost always say "said." I don't have a horror of adverbs. I'm just lazy. Also, deadpan humor doesn't work if you telegraph it...

  4. So true. The reader is either going to get the joke or not, and no amount of browbeating from me will make it any better.