Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances they can become repetitive. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. I have found it saves time to use the hard copy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.
But this leads me to the problem of using words that are jarring and obscure.
The important thing is to remember the audience you are writing for. If you are writing for a YA (Young Adult) audience, remember their reading level. They are just embarking on the reading journey, so don’t use words that my editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.”
Quote from Blogging.com: What is a Ten-Dollar Word? A ten-dollar word is a longer word that is used in place of a smaller and more well-known word. The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use highfalutin words to inflate their appearance and seem smarter than the more average man. Words like these serve a very important purpose; they make you seem smarter than you actually are. One profession that’s very intelligent with their use of these words is the legal profession.
These words will stop the eye of the newer reader, who must set the book down, get the dictionary, and then look the word up. Or they will simply set the book down and not return to it.
The reason new readers often don’t like Literary Fiction is that they don’t understand many of the words and feel “talked down to.” Literary Fiction is work written for the experienced reader with a wide vocabulary. Children’s books and Middle Grade and Young Adult novels are the training grounds for readers, enabling them to gradually widen their vocabulary without their realizing it.
One of the worst places to get creative word-wise is with dialogue tags because it becomes telling rather than showing. Your punctuation and the physical action should convey the emotions. Some tags that are jarring and unnecessary are:
I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye.
Something authors must consider: People don’t snort, smirk, smile, or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.
They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and cannot speak.
This means that we add gestures and actions to the conversation to show the emotions, making it meaningful. Otherwise, stick with a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.
Conversely, don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.
Where you place the speech tags in a sentence is important. Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out.
However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.
You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but
- not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
- not for more than a few exchanges.
Authors must create a balanced narrative.
Readers want to be able to track who is saying what, and don’t like being confused. They like being challenged, but don’t want to have stop and look more than one or two words up. They don’t want to be jarred out of the book by ten-dollar words. And finally, they don’t want to be told a story. They want to see it happen.
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