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!