In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution.
Last week I wrote about why it’s important for you to cut as many adverbs from your manuscript as you can. Adverbs weaken your writing in almost every case, and usually you can find a better word or phrase to substitute in for the adverb.
At the same time, I do think sometimes adverbs can get a pass at times. The occasional ‘slowly’ or ‘quickly’ won’t ruin your novel by any means. Sometimes, especially in a longer work, an adverb can fit well enough in a sentence that it’s best to just leave it be rather than spent the next half-hour coming up with a different phrase that is even more awkward than just using the adverb in the first place.
However, and I’m in complete agreement with Stephen King on this one: adverbs in dialogue attribution should be completely wiped out from the first page to the last page. Adverbs often look lazy when you include them in a sentence, but they look downright ridiculous when you include them in your dialogue attributions.
Now, I know what you’re saying, I know, I know: HARRY POTTER. It’s one of my favorite book series of all time. I’ve re-read these books twice now. J.K. Rowling forever has a place in my heart. And in these books, the adverbs in dialogue attribution don’t bother me to the point where I have to put the book down and scream by any means.
But on the latest re-reads of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets in the last two years, I’m not going to lie: I’ve struggled, a lot, with the awkwardness of Rowling’s dialogue attributions, to the point where, whenever possible, I try to just skim over them and pretend like they’re not there. Because it’s one thing to have the occasional “Harry said thoughtfully” or “Hermione asked respectfully.” It’s another when there’s just one after another after another after another, all on the same page.
Adverbs in dialogue attribution are not just lazy writing but also extremely awkward because what happens is you read a line of dialogue, then the adverb in the dialogue attribution TELLS YOU how the line was read. So essentially you’re expected to re-read the line of dialogue in the way that the character was apparently saying it.
But every time, without question, an action accompanying the dialogue attribution is so much more effective at showing how the character is saying the dialogue rather than just telling us how he’s saying it. Show, don’t tell, always, always, always.
Here’s an example…
“You look so beautiful,” he said to his girlfriend romantically.
Yuck, right? In this case, ‘romantically’ isn’t needed because the line of dialogue already suggests he’s saying it in a romantic way.
But what about this?
“You look so beautiful,” he said to his girlfriend humorously.
Okay, so now there’s a better argument for the adverb, because otherwise the reader would just assume the guy was saying the line straight, not with any humor. But is he making fun of her appearance? Is he just teasing her in a fun way? It’s not clear.
“You look so beautiful,” he said to his girlfriend, first pointing at the lipstick smudged against her cheek, then at the large tear at the bottom of her satin dress.
Better, right? This boyfriend is mean and kind of awful, but the sentence itself is better, telling the reader through his action how he’s saying the words, not just telling us that he’s saying them humorously.
But it’s still not ideal, and you know why? The way the previous sentence is written is awkward because through the use of the comma following ‘girlfriend’ I’m suggesting that he’s saying “You look so beautiful” as he’s pointing at the lipstick on her face AND at the tear of her dress. Could someone point to two places while saying just four little words? He could. It’s not impossible. It’s not as bad as: “You look so beautiful,” he said to his girlfriend, running back from the kitchen, taking a seat on the leather couch, and taking a few bites of his popcorn. NOW we’re in simply impossible territory.
But in dialogue attribution, you always want to remember to make the character’s actions plausible and natural if it’s following the dialogue. I would probably change the line in my own work to…
“You look so beautiful,” he said to his girlfriend, pointing at the lipstick smudged against her cheek. He released a soft chuckle, then tilted his head a little to the left and pointed at the large tear at the bottom of her satin dress.
A little better, right? I would probably next have the girlfriend walk right up to this guy and slap him… but that’s a story for another day.
So the bottom line? Try to remove as many adverbs from your manuscript as you can, and when you do include them in your writing, do so in moderation!
And when it comes to adverbs in dialogue attribution, I suggest you remove all of them. Every. Single. One. Doing so will allow you to show more to the reader, not tell.
And it will make your writing shine all the more.