Friday, August 29

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?


Writers are often told not to use adverbs in dialogue tags. For example:

“You are dead to me,” he said coldly.

Or, worse:

“You are dead to me,” he whispered coldly.

(I bet you cringed just reading that!)

One reason adverbs are discouraged in dialogue tags is it encourages telling rather than showing. As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In “On Writing,” Stephen King tells us that fear lives at the heart of all weak writing. Specifically, the fear that readers won’t understand what we’re trying to communicate. King writes:

“I’m convinced that 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.

“You probably do know what you’re talking about, and can safely energize your prose with active verbs. And you probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly. Your man may be floundering in a swamp, and by all means throw him a rope if he is … but there’s no need to knock him unconscious with ninety feet of steel cable.”

Most authors love to use adverbs in dialogue attributions.


Stephen King admits he’s used adverbs in dialogue attributions:

“Is this a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’ The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. [...] When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.”

That said, King has used fewer adverbs over the years, both in dialogue attribution and elsewhere.

I say all this not to defend King, since he needs no defense, but to give you a feeling for the lay of the land. What I really want to talk about is not that we shouldn’t use adverbs in dialogue tags but, instead, whether this dislike of dialogue tags is perhaps one of those things that change with the times.

Adverbs in dialogue attributions, past and present.


Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” was my favorite book growing up. There was something about it, some quality. If you pressed me to put that quality into words I’d say it was magical and then feel disappointed in myself for under describing it. “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of the books that shaped how I think and what I like.

“A Wrinkle in Time” contained many tags (about 60) with adverbs in them. To put that in perspective, J.K. Rowling used fewer such tags in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” (about 40) and her book was over 20,000 words longer than L’Engle’s.

The finding that surprised me the most was from “The Goldfinch.” In that novel about 200 of the dialogue attributions contain an -ly adverb. That’s more than are in E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” and James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider,” combined. Actually, Patterson’s book only contains four such instances.

Even “The Maltese Falcon,” one of my favorite books, contains around 50 such tags.

Could it be that our attitudes, or perhaps our tolerance for, adverbs in dialogue tags has changed over the years? For example, the dialogue tags in “Never Go Back,” published in September 2013, are adverb free. That’s right, the book contains no tags with adverbs.

But, against that idea, “Lord of the Flies” was written in the 50s and only has six or so adverbs in its tags. And Jim Butcher’s latest book in the Dresden Files series, published just this year, contains well over 100 dialogue tags with adverbs in them. 

Perhaps one could argue that, at least in part, whether to use adverbs in one’s dialogue tags is part of one’s writing style. Yes, Stephen King attributes use of adverbs to timidity—and he may well be right—but perhaps adverb use could also simply be a component of an author’s voice.

The most interesting thing that came from my investigations into using adverbs in dialogue tags is that the practice seems to cut across the literary/genre boundary. That surprised me. Of course, this could simply be an artifact of the small sample sizes I’m working with!

What do you think? Is the use of adverbs in dialogue tags a weakness—a sign of timidity—or is it simply a matter of style?

Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "Boat Abandoned On The Beach" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

2 comments:

  1. Love your blog, Karen! I find my ongoing battle with the use of adverbs to be very frustrating. When writing novels, I agree with King and others that a detailed description and strong dialogue are better than the adverb, and I find dozens of them in my revisions and am happy to be rid of them. But sometimes, especially with short stories, serial installments and dialogue, I find adverbs just fit without impacting word count or add fluff where it isn't needed/wanted. I think it weakens the overall writing, but I feel confident that my reader will best understand how I'm trying to say something. It's a challenge, one I have not conquered yet. As long as I have fewer adverbs than E.L. James, I'll be happy. I'm still haunted by some of her weak passages, and remember them often when I try to describe something effectively

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    1. Thanks Bradford! That's exactly (!) how I'd describe my own relationship with adverb use: a battle. It IS frustrating. I like your attitude: all things in moderation. As Stephen King says, use the first word that comes to mind if it is appropriate and colorful. All the best!

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