We all know how adverbs are supposedly an author’s archnemesis. They are to be avoided like, well, passive voice. We’re to go through our manuscripts, find each and every one of them, and kill them while crying out, “die, rebel scum!”
Hemingway has a lot to do with this, but so does Stephen King, with his famous quote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Or, as the full quote goes:
“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.”
To remind writers of Stephen King’s advice regarding adverbs, here is a short extract from his book, Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft, which remains for 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.
Has Anyone Told Readers Yet?
There’s only one problem with all this: readers don’t seem to mind adverbs at all. While we’re busy laughing at any author still using adverbs, enjoying the welcome feeling of smug superiority, readers are busy buying their books. Don’t believe me? Derek Haines shared his surprising findings on Just Publishing Advice. He took the time to check out the bestselling titles on Amazon and had a quick preview read of some of the top 100 books.
Call it market research.
While this habit is often about discovering what genres are popular or how a book hooks a reader in the first chapter, Derek noticed that adverbs are being used far more often. When he checked the top five ebooks on Kindle, three of the titles used adverbs with reporting verbs with almost every line of dialogue. All of them were romance.
For him, the three books were annoying and painful to read. But he couldn’t help but wonder if the return of the adverb is intentional and it’s once again considered a writing tool that helps speed up a story. At least for some, adverbs are now in, and the road to hell is not paved with them, or dandelions, anymore. Instead, the road to the bestseller list may well be literally, currently, and incessantly dotted with -ly adverbs.
Perhaps adverbs that would have been best removed forty years ago by great writers are now perhaps totally, completely, and immensely fashionable. Our language is always evolving. And readers today may have grown tired of books devoid of any adverbs.
Oh, and you know what? Stephen King’s own The Dead Zone is actually full of adverbs.
Like Derek, I, too, have Winston Churchill’s famous quote echoing in my mind. “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
Yes, Winston, you were right. It was such a silly rule.