AVOIDING NOUN-VERB COMBINATIONS
One of the struggles of presenting dialogue, is how to tag it so the reader knows who’s speaking. There’s the direct he said and she said. Then there’s the implied tags which aren’t really tags at all. If you want to go to the extreme, there’s no dialogue at all, but who wants to read a story like that?
An increasingly popular form of tag is the action tag. They’re effective and avoid the “said” word while also providing a way for the character to perform something and move the story. However, they can also make you fall into a deadly pattern of the noun-verb combination and readers will spot that if you have too many of them per page.
The noun-verb combination also applies to narrative, which I’ll address a bit later.
The old standby is said.
“I told you so,” John said.
However, if you have a lot of characters on the page or a lot of dialogue, beginning writers will see too many saids on the page and go for variety by changing them to other words. Yup, pull out the old thesaurus and you get, accused, implied, droned, huffed, etc.
In modern writing, those have become passé and publishers and editors increasingly see them as amateurish.
The same for asked.
“What do I do now?” Mary asked.
Should be “What do I do now?” Mary said.
Said, is an old standby and should be used sparingly because it creates a pattern. The idea is to avoid patterns. You need to mix it up!
Implied tags are the sneaky ones. If the conversation is between two people, once the two speakers are identified, all you need to do is identify each of them once in a while so the reader doesn’t lose track of who’s speaking, and you don’t need to keep tagging every single line. The rhythm implies each character.
“This is awful. What do we do?” Mary did not want to face her father.
Willie sighed and peeked around the door. “I suggest we wait until tomorrow.
“I don’t know. He’ll get mad.” (implied)
“Who cares?” (implied)
“I do.” Mary shoved Willie aside and went into the living room.
Notice that I also used action tags in this example.
Action tags have the character doing something instead of just tagging them with said, or ask, or some other verb. This is a very good way to move the story, add a bit of narrative and avoid conventional tags. The issue is avoiding noun-verb patterns.
The problem with action tags is that they can leak over into the narrative. They both convey movement.
When you get blasting away with your writing, sit back and take a look at the result. If you use action tags with your narrative, you may be surprised to see a lot of paragraphs, including dialogue, beginning something like this:
The ranger squirmed
There’s nothing wrong with having a few on each page, one or two maybe, but many more than that and it becomes a pattern. You need to break them up! You can’t have them at the beginning of every sentence or the reader may think they’re reading a poem. After a while they’ll feel the monotony.
This is where you may not even be aware you’re doing it and it might take another reader to point them out to you. It happened to me, if you notice the names in the above sentence starters (and are aware of my fantasy story). Some of them are tags while others are narrative. However, they all add up to a pattern I never saw until my editor pointed them out.
I’ve found it quite a challenge to fix without creating more patterns.
It takes a bit of thought to reword from noun-verb. You can cut a few and shift others later in the paragraph (or put them at the end the dialogue). For some, it’s a matter of rearranging words to shift the noun-verb to later in the sentence.
The idea is to break the pattern!
Patterns create tedium.
The other thought I want to emphasize is that patterns are not the same as style! Style is your voice, not the mechanics of your prose. Don’t try to be lax with your writing and use the excuse that it’s your style.