Head hopping, dialogue tag adverbs & ‘said’ bookisms: Technical errors that turn off publishers

Today I’m posting a guest blog from YA historical fiction author, Richard Blackburn. Richard shares his remedies for mistakes that novice writers often make.

Following is what Richard has to say about:

  • dialogue-tag adverbs
  • ‘said’ bookisms
  • head hopping
  • third-person filtering

There are a few common mistakes that writers make without ever knowing they are wrong. I know. I used to do all of them until my editor at Lachesis (a Canadian publisher) refused to allow them in my book. This was a shock because I was already published in Australia! 

I realized that my previous submissions to major publishers could have been rejected because of these mistakes. Since then I’ve passed on this information to scores of writers. I hope they help readers of this blog.

1. Dialogue-tag adverbs

An adverb is a word that, among other things, qualifies or describes a verb. “I ran fast” is an example. Ran is the verb, fast is the adverb. 

A dialogue-tag is a verb that links a piece of dialogue to the rest of the writing.

In the following example, shouted is the verb, and angrily is the dialogue-tag adverb: 

“You absolute idiots,” Andrew shouted angrily. 

The reason the word angrily is not good is because it tells you a fact, rather than showing you. A better way to write the sentence is:

‘Andrew stormed into the room and looked around angrily.

“You absolute idiots,” he shouted.’

2. ‘Said’ Bookisms

In the 1930s there was a book published called The Said Book. This gave writers a huge number of verbs to use instead of the word said. These days publishers prefer writers to keep it simple and use said.

A major mistake is to use verbs that don’t have anything to do with uttering sounds.

‘ “Oh my darling,” she sighed.’

You cannot sigh words. It’s the same with roar, squeak, growl and hiss.

A hint: 

I try to give my main characters and character groups a distinctive sound. So the Lords and Ladies in the year 1347 might say:

“I do believe he will be apprehended and they shall hang him.”

My main character, the modern-day, time-travelling Jenny, and people in the middle classes would say:

“If they catch him, I’m pretty sure they’ll hang him.”

And the peasants would say:

“If they get ‘im, it’s ‘anged e’ll be fer sure.”

In this way I can have a long section of dialogue, say between Jenny and Blind Bob, the peasant, and I’ll only have to use “Jenny said” and “Bob said” for the first two sentences then it’s obvious who is speaking and I don’t have to use a dialogue tag at all.

A note from Cathryn

If you’re interested in reading further about ‘said’ bookisms, try Uncle Orson’s Writing Class (by Orson Scott Card). 

3. Third Person Head Hopping

When you write in the limited third person, it is important that you keep everything in that person’s POV and not switch around.

Say I’m writing in Jenny’s point of view. I can say what Jenny does and says, and also what she thinks and feels. I can say what anyone else does and says but not what they think or feel.

‘Jenny suddenly saw the enemy horsemen in the valley in front of her. She caught her breath sharply. She felt sick. She was horrified.’

That’s alright but in following example doesn’t work:

‘Jenny suddenly saw the enemy horsemen in the valley in front of her. She caught her breath sharply. She felt sick. She looked at John. He was horrified as well.’

Here I’m hopping from Jenny’s head into John’s. I could say that he looked horrified, that he was obviously horrified, or have him say that he is horrified. 

But I can’t say what he feels, because I am writing from Jenny’s perspective.

4. Filtering

When writing in the third person, there is another mistake that is easy to make. Look at the following sentence:

‘Jenny lay patiently on the floor of the hut, peering at the silent village before her. After what seemed like an eternity she saw a slight movement from among the dark trees to her right.’

I should not have included she saw. This is called filtering. It is unnecessary and removes immediacy between the POV and the action.

Another comment from Cathryn:

Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters and Viewpoint, has a visual description of the different types of third-person perspective (pp. 163-169 in the 1988 edn, Writers’ Digest Books).

Have you made these mistakes in your writing? Are there other craft errors that your writing group members have alerted you to? I’m curious to know.

I know I was taught to put ‘interesting’ adverbs in my stories when I was at secondary  school.

Here’s some info about Richard Blackburn and his books:

Richard is Zeus Publication’s bestselling author. He has written a historical fiction trilogy: The GatekeeperRudigor’s Revenge (both listed in the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge) and The RegimentRichard lives in Queensland and travels extensively to do book signings.

Click here to visit Richard’s website.