Adverbs in Dialogue

One of the first pieces of advice I got when I started writing my book was never to use an adverb following “said”, e.g.:

“Of course,” she said happily.

This, I was told, constitutes “telling” rather than “showing”. I heard this advice repeated several times over the course of my writing it, and my editor has quite firmly told me you should never use an adverb in this way except in the rarest of occasions. Instead, you should show the reader what emotions are being displayed, either by using different dialogue that makes the meaning clear or by describing the speaker’s mood in other ways, e.g. their facial expression, body language, etc.

Now this makes sense on some levels: an author should show not tell, and it would be very annoying to read a different adverb after every instance of “he said”. But I have a problem with this advice. I’ve read a lot of books and I don’t recall an absence of adverbs used in this way and so yesterday I opened up four books at random from established authors that I admire:

Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!

Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

With barely any effort, meaning I turned to a random page of dialogue, I found multiple instances of adverbs used in this way by all four authors. I didn’t bother opening any other books, but I suspect I’d find the same if I opened another twenty. And yes, I checked that they weren’t in each case using them in a highly-specific way which is absolutely essential in that one instance. Besides, the advice I received was never to use them except in exceptional circumstances.

Now consider this paragraph from Northanger Abbey when Tinley meets Catherine for the first time:

“Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. “I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—” I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”

The “gravely” lets the reader know, quickly and simply, that Tinley is mocking Catherine. Now perhaps the reader could work that out for himself, but personally I think it conveys the tone of the conversation better than the dialogue alone. Is it spoon-feeding me? Possibly, but I rather like the use of adverbs in this manner because what’s the alternative? In this example, and those of the other three books listed above, the dialogue is moving along at a rapid pace and the reader immersed in the repartee; in such instances, I think conveying the tone of the speaker in the most efficient manner possible, i.e. with an adverb, beats adding words to the dialogue or breaking it up to describe body language, etc.

Or, put another way, if the likes of Chandler, Austen, and Pratchett use adverbs in their dialogue and I especially like these authors for their dialogue, why would I steadfastly avoid using them in my own writings? Well, I wouldn’t so I’ll be keeping them when I think they’re conveying information in the most efficient manner.

Similarly, I was also told not to use words other than “said” and occasionally “asked” when writing dialogue. Again, I can understand this: nothing is more pretentious than an author using as many different words as possible in place of “said”, but when I looked at the four books above I found each frequently used alternatives. Pratchett seems to use them more liberally than others, perhaps because his style is often mocking pretentiousness (and I have no intention of taking it that far), but I find the occasional use of “grumbled” or “bawled” makes dialogue more colourful.

I know the whole point of dialogue is to immerse the reader so they somehow forget they’re reading a book, but I’ve never found the author taking license to describe the tone of voice to be overly distracting. I need to be careful, but I’m taking the view that if it’s good enough for authors like the ones I’ve listed, it’s good enough for me. Sorry, editor!

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37 thoughts on “Adverbs in Dialogue

  1. Interesting points, Tim, and I agree. I opened Conrad’s The Nigger of The Narcissus at random, and I saw “…he said with eagerness”, which is an adverbial phrase qualifying “said”.

  2. But but a couple of weeks ago in one of your anti-Kamm rants were you not insistent that people should follow random style guides rather than follow their instincts?

  3. But but a couple of weeks ago in one of your anti-Kamm rants were you not insistent that people should follow random style guides rather than follow their instincts?

    I rarely insist on anything on this blog, so no. But you’re right, there is an inconsistency. Allow me to explain.

    Kamm’s position is that style guides are a waste of time and that any advice therein can be rendered null and void by picking a single counter-example from a classic work. He believes there is no such thing as an authority on style and grammar and then sets about telling everyone what you may do when it comes to style and grammar as if he is an authority. He has yet to realise that telling people what they *should* do is little different from telling them what they *shoudn’t*.

    For my part, I’m finding there is an inconsistency between style guides/editorial advice and published works regarding dialogue, and this is not limited to the odd counter-example. In deciding whether to stick rigidly to the editor’s advice or deviate a little based on authors I like, I’ve decided on the latter. I’m not saying the editor’s advice is crap and others should not follow it, I’m merely saying that in my particular case I’m going to deviate. Many of my editor’s comments are good, and many relate to punctuation based on the “Chicago style”. I have no problem, generally speaking, blindly implementing them.

  4. I think I can follow the reason for the proscription. The adverb assigns the identification of the modifier as being the narrator’s, independent of the characters in the dialogue.. It’s probably better if the same is discovered by by the receiver of the words or assigned to the utterer in either dialogue or description. One tries to give the feeling that the conversation is solely between the characters rather than recounted by a fly-on-the wall observer. The he said, she said stuff & its past tense is just an accepted stylistic convention to identify speakers.for the reader. The conversation happens in the “now” of the narrative.

  5. Bloody hell, Newman, I’ve just finished my campus satire book after carefully taking out all the adverbs qualifying ‘said’ and now you’re saying I shouldn’t have bothered? I’m going to go back and at the very least put back in ‘He said Reagonomically’.

  6. These rules are often initiated by people who are either not working fiction writers or by a writer who just has a more or less irrational pet hate. They then become codified and unthinkingly adopted by the dimmer “gatekeepers”. The first rank of gatekeepers are the readers employed by publishers and TV/film companies. They are usually straight out of an English Lit course and know zero about the practicalities of writing or about judging writing which hasn’t been in the literary canon for decades. It’s not easy to spot potential, especially if it needs refining, it’s easy to spot an infraction of the rules and churn out a rejection letter.

    The lowlier writer probably won’t even get any further than a reader before their script hits the bin. If they had the chance they could point to a multitude of examples of these “rules” having been broken at some time by numerous popular and/or prize-winning writers but of course those successful writers can tell the gatekeepers to shove it – if they even have to deal with them at all. The writer at the bottom of the pile can’t.

  7. “Show not tell” is probably good advice for playwrights and screenwriters. For novelists, or short story writers, it’s cretinous. He said, dismissively.

  8. Tim,
    I have used them a lot in my writing and no one has turned around and said they are an intrusion.
    If you are having a conversation between characters, it gets in the way to always show the emotions behind their conversation through actions or expressions.
    ‘That’s great,’ he commented sardonically.
    ‘That’s great,’ he commented. He gave John the mocking eye indicating he was less than keen on the proposal.
    Which is neater?
    My advice is twofold.
    1. Get rid of as many “she said/he said” in your dialogue and use other words that include the emotion.
    ‘Look at that!’ he gasped.
    ‘Look at that!’ He pointed at the offending spider crawling across the room.
    ‘This is going to take a lot of my time,’ he said glumly.
    ‘This is going to take a lot of my time,’ he sighed.
    Taking out “said” which is really just a way of attributing the dialogue to a particular character and substituting one of the hundreds of possible words that can be used instead helps conveys the emotion behind the words. Then you can cut down on the adverbs a bit.
    I think if you explore what really good writers are doing is they are doing pretty much the above.
    But also, critically, you need to vary the way the dialogue is done, even at times omitting who has spoken.
    ‘I guess, John, you’re up for this,’ Edward suggested slyly.
    ‘Nope. Not in a million years.’
    ‘Pity,’ Edward muttered, ‘it would have been a great night out.’

    OK, only my 1/2p’s worth.

    Have a great Xmas & New year.
    Peter

  9. “Show not tell” is probably good advice for playwrights and screenwriters. For novelists, or short story writers, it’s cretinous. He said, dismissively.

    Yep.

    As with everything else in life, listen to any advice you can, and then decide for yourself – which you seem to be doing anyway, which is good.

  10. I feel that tags/adverbs are essential in good writing, but should be used sparingly and only when they add something new.

    They tend to break up the flow of dialog, so I’d be inclined to keep them out of the middle of conversation unless you want it to read like a negotiation that is being analyzed by both parties. (Not that this is a bad thing)

  11. Has anyone ever issued a corresponding fatwa against adjectives?

    Or should I say a fatwa that corresponds to the fatwa against adverbs?

  12. Rules are made to be broken. Sure, be aware of them and then go full steam ahead breaking them where necessary.

    It is the story that counts, and the best storytellers use everything they can to move the story forward.

    Also, write the book before ‘he said/she said’ becomes moderated by law to ‘Xe said/Zir said.’

  13. Interesting point. I think it depends whether the adverb adds something. That “gravely” did by adding a note of irony. I have a dim recollection of reading a book by Agatha Christie many years ago where the clunking He said, she said, reported dialogue really distracted. My brother in law had a little game to use an adverb humorously, e.g “I’ve lost my button hole”, he said lackadaisically.
    All the best for Christmas.

  14. ” I found multiple instances of adverbs used in this way by all four authors. I didn’t bother opening any other books, but I suspect I’d find the same if I opened another twenty.”

    Well, I thought I’d give it a go, so I used;
    Whipping Star, by Frank Herbert, Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks, Spook Country by William Gibson, and Paul Cornell’s London Falling.
    For three of them, I opened the book at random three times, found a piece of dialogue, and counted the verbs and adverbs. For Whipping Star, the first sample gave me 15 pages* of dialogue, so I just used that.

    I ended up with 432 dialogue elements; said is used as a verb around 33% of the time. Other verbs (asked, grumbled, muttered, called, etc) around 18%, with no verb used (the dialogue just bounces between two characters) 48% of the time.

    Those numbers appear to be skewed by the first sample in Spook Country, and Iain M Banks appears to use verbs very sparsely, so ignoring those, gives said at 46%, other verbs at 26% and no verb at 28% of the time.

    Either way, I only had four adverbs or similar; they were “evenly”, “shocked”, “spoke very quickly” and “with a remarkably gloomy cadence”.

    Which is 4 from 432 which is 1%, or 4 from 275, being 1.5% of the time.

    So, in that sample, the rule holds.

    However, actually reading the dialogue, it’s apparent that what the character said, gives you the mood. So using an adverb would be redundant.

    * It’s probably longer; I got bored.

  15. I think you’re right. If you start trying to mangle out an adverb in certain situations, you might lose rhythm, or something else.

    The thing with any creative work is listening to people, getting all the advice you can, and then not being dogmatic about it, but using things appropriately.

  16. Well, I thought I’d give it a go

    Fine research, sir! Thank you.

    Which is 4 from 432 which is 1%, or 4 from 275, being 1.5% of the time.

    So, in that sample, the rule holds.

    Yeah, use but use sparingly. It clearly varies by author though, and perhaps more modern authors use them less.

  17. OK, only my 1/2p’s worth.

    And it’s very welcome. Thanks, Peter!

    Have a great Xmas & New year.

    You too!

  18. As with everything else in life, listen to any advice you can, and then decide for yourself – which you seem to be doing anyway, which is good.

    Indeed, and I’m in no way knocking the advice; it’s clearly sound, I just think I’m smart enough to not apply it to the letter. 😉

  19. The thing with any creative work is listening to people, getting all the advice you can, and then not being dogmatic about it, but using things appropriately.

    Yup!

  20. I think it depends whether the adverb adds something.

    Yes, and I have half an inkling that editors told people to stop using adverbs in this way because there was a spate of writers who used them everywhere, probably trying to show off their range of vocabulary.

    All the best for Christmas.

    Thanks, you too!

  21. You might enjoy this from a best selling author (and originator of one of the best first lines in fiction ever: “On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window. ” )

    http://monsterhunternation.com/2017/01/18/ask-correia-17-writing-for-the-ear-tweaking-your-writing-to-work-better-in-audiobook-form/

    Now in this piece he’s mostly talking about audiobooks but a lot of the rules carry over and these days audiobooks can be a large part of the revenue stream for an author.

    Also https://madgeniusclub.com/2012/09/19/dialogue-a-lesson-with-fred-and-mary/

    The adverb idea is, I think, a reaction to writers who over used them and overused words like exclaimed, explained, and so on because they aren’t needed. he said, she said is, usually quite enough and you can often skip it.

    BUT sometimes you need to get the tone of voice in and you can’t do it with just the words. How, for example, do you reliably indicate that particular comments are sarcastic?

  22. ‘Get to the back of the boat,’ he said sternly.

    ‘Accidents will happen,’ said Captain Hook off-handedly.

    ‘That hat is just your size,’ she said fittingly.

    ‘Is that a woolly jumper?’ She asked sheepishly.

    Know as ‘Tom Swifties’ after series of children’s books featuring a character of that name, in which Tom never just ‘said’ anything.

  23. Perhaps the rule doesn’t exist because using an adverb following “said” is intrinsically wrong, but because avoiding such usage forces one to develop more effective dialogue that can stand by itself.

    And then, once you have developed that part of the craft, you’re allowed to break the rule as you desire, but you find that your better-developed dialogue renders that adverb unneeded more often than it was before.

    No one ever tried to tell an old Picasso how he should be holding his brushes, but I understand he took a lot of heat for it when he was young.

  24. “I have half an inkling that editors told people to stop using adverbs in this way because there was a spate of writers who used them everywhere, probably trying to show off their range of vocabulary.”

    Which might have happened shortly after 1755, resulting in many contrafibularities. It may even have been frasmotic.

  25. Writers make their own rules. Henry James used a fuck load of adverbs around his dialogue and he is still the Master. Chandler, Hammett and Co used adverbs in a way that became a trademark, a stylistic tic, so that you wonder whether he said it sternly, sarcastically, aggrieved… so probably better to avoid. And they copied it from PG Wodehouse – Chandler was at Dulwich College a few years after Wodehouse so they might have had the same English teachers.

    If it gets to become a noticeable stylistic habit, then cut down unless you want to make a point of it…. For humorous reasons like Wodehouse, or for hard-boiled comedy like Chandler.

  26. If it gets to become a noticeable stylistic habit, then cut down unless you want to make a point of it

    Yeah, I am using them sparingly indeed, almost eliminating them. I’m not good enough to make my own stylistic habit, at least not yet.

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