Saturday, July 10, 2010

On Writing: Adverbs and Dialog Attribution

Stephen King's On Writing makes a very clear point about your -ly words: The adverb is not your friend. If you have a verb that you feel needs modifying, it's probably best to pick a stronger verb. New writers commit this crime most often with dialogue attribution. Some of King's examples: "shouted menacingly," "pleaded abjectly," "said contemptuously." I guarantee you, an editor will strike through all of those. The best form of dialogue attribution is said. It's a winner every time. Other words will get in the way of the dialogue flow and distract your reader. A character's words will tell the reader if they are menacing or pleading or feeling contempt. Another good choice is to use action tags. Here's an example, first with an adverb of death:

"I'm ready to leave," she said tiredly.

Or with an action tag instead:

"I'm ready to leave." She rubbed her temple and checked her watch.

The action at the end of the second sentence shows you how the characters feels, much preferable to the first sentence which tells you.

King uses a lot of examples and rules from a terrific little grammar text called Strunk and White's Elements of Style. It's a slim volume full of invaluable information. I bought my copy for $10 at the same time I bought On Writing for $8. That's a much better value than the $300 I spent on a college creative writing class years ago where all I learned was how much the professor hated the publishing industry because they wouldn't publish his literary masterpiece. While it's true that sometimes you get what you pay for, sometimes a good deal is far more valuable.


Anonymous said...

A bad workman quarrels with his tools...................................................................

Roh Morgon said...

Ah, yes...the dreaded "-ly" words.

I just recently (ly!) combed through a novella I wrote and removed a bunch of those puppies. But I can't part with them entirely (ly!)

I like them because they frequently (-ly!) convey action/emotion more concisely (-ly!). Look at the word count in your example - one word (tiredly) ballooned into seven words. I'm not pointing a finger at your writing, but rather on the current publishing ban on adverbs.

I've also found that adverbs can help with cadence and rhythm in a sentence. When a sentence is stripped of adverbs, it runs the risk of sounding flat, and to me, just plain boring.

I do recognize that adverbs are overused and mis-used, especially (-ly!) by beginning writers like me.

So now I look at each one carefully...

Uh, wait a minute...

So now I examine each one :) ... see if it's crucial to the meaning or cadence of the sentence. Most of the time I'm able to find an alternate way to get the point across. But if I can't, I'll leave it. Used sparingly (-ly!), they can become powerful words all on their own.

And yes, I realize I could've used non-ly words in every instance above, but chose not to in order to maintain brevity.

PS - the word substitution you applied in your example was much more visual and I agree (wholeheartedly) with the revision!

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any way to completely avoid adverbs, or that writers should. Sometimes, though, you can do without them. The biggest change I've made in my own writing is getting rid of them in dialog tags. I've become a true believer when it comes to using "said" and action tags. :-)