Stephen King’s dislike of adverbs is well-known, but are writers now ignoring his advice?
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.” Stephen King
I often take a look at the bestselling titles on Amazon and have a quick preview read of the top 10 books. Call it market research.
While this habit of mine is often about discovering what genres are popular, or how a book hooks a reader in the first chapter, I have noticed in recent times that adverbs are being used far more often.
Yesterday, I checked the top five ebooks on Kindle and three of the titles used adverbs with reporting verbs with almost every line of dialogue.
For me, the three books were annoying and painful to read, but what do I know about popular writing and what readers want to read today?
Not to point a finger, but as the three titles were romance, I wonder if the return of the dreaded adverb is intentional and is becoming a writing tool that helps speed up a story. Or, are the writers oblivious to the old writing adage that adverbs are not your friend.
With so many new writers using self-publishing now, perhaps they are unaware of the fact that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Or should we now say, was paved?
What did Stephen King say about adverbs?
To remind writers of Stephen King’s advice here is a short extract from his book, On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft, which is to many writers the ultimate guide to good writing.
I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:
“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:
“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.
Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:”
“Put the gun down, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.
The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.
I have always been a firm believer in this last line of advice from King because it makes a writer work at showing and not telling.
But, what would I know? None of my books are in the top ten. But for some, adverbs are now in, and the road to hell is not paved with them anymore. Instead, the road to the bestseller list may well be literally, currently and incessantly dotted with damned adverbs.
“Oh no!” I moan, begrudgingly.