Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dialogue Attributions: Stephen King, J K Rowling, and My Two Cents

"I'm convinced fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild--timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under deadline--a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample--that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him."
-- Stephen King, On Writing, p 127.

Interestingly, J. K. Rowling is well known for adverbial dialogue attributions and has been criticized for it. But that didn't keep King from including the first three Harry Potter novels on his list of 'best books I've read over the last three or four years" [1996-2000].

I don't think dialogue attribution is always the nasty varmint it's made out to be. The only ones that really care about them, because they have to, are editors, contest judges, and teachers.

To be clear, however, I've never seen anything like these in Rowling's writing:

"Give it up, Boswell," he spat menacingly.
"Don't leave me," she begged grovelingly.
"I see the light!" he erupted joyously.
Makes you cringe doesn't it. By God's grace, they will never appear in my writing. Nor anything close to them. Yet, I think one might get away with them. It depends on the readership. Juvenile readers may think they're cool. Pulp fiction readers wouldn't flinch at all, I don't think. But we Christian writers are writing elegantly, aren't we, and this falls a mile below elegance. These are worse case examples, yet they make a vivid point about how low one could go to add that extra little touch that Stephen King warns against.
Here is how I think these might be acceptable:
(1) "Give it up, Boswell," he said darkly.
(2) "Don't leave me," she pleaded, tears emerging.
(3) "I see the light!" he bellowed.
The purist would say for (1) that if the context sets the mood well enough, the adverb 'darkly' is unnecessary. That has never been true for me. As dark and somber and tense the setting might be I don't get the same feel without the adverb as with it.
Admittedly, for (2), an adverb is not used; rather an adverbial phrase which assumes that tears have not started to flow but are anticipated. Caution though; if there is no anticipation of tears, the tag would feel out of place.
For (3), the purist would have to relent that something stronger than the word 'said' is necessary; but he would certainly be right in insisting that adding an adverb would be just plain wrong. This attribution is forceful enough on its own; an adverb would be redundant and cumbersome.

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