Is The Stephen King Adverbs Rule Going Out Of Fashion?
Stephen King and his advice on adverbs is well-known, but are writers now ignoring it?
This is Stephen King on adverbs. “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
Adverbs in books today
I often take a look at the bestselling titles on Amazon and have 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, I have noticed 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 in 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 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 ly adverbs are not your best 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 his advice, here is a short extract from his book, Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. It is, for many writers, still 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.
Show, don’t tell
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?
Not one of my books is in the top ten anywhere.
But 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.
“Oh, no!” I moan begrudgingly.
So, what literally is an adverb?
It is a part of speech. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
The most recognizable form is adding ly to words such as sadly, modestly, greedily, angrily, happily, or terribly.
These are often adverbs of manner that can modify adjectives and other adverbs.
Examples of time include yesterday, tomorrow, now, then, late, and early.
Then there are frequency adverbs like sometimes, never, rarely, or often.
You can also use adverbial phrases like very carefully, quite easily, surprisingly well, or luckily for us.
Sentence adverbs modify a whole sentence by setting the sentiment in the first word.
Common words are clearly, obviously, curiously, or sadly. A comma usually follows after the first introductory adverb.
Using an adverb before an adjective modifies the adjective.
Truly funny, incredibly big, carefully manicured, and fairly solid are good examples.
But King was mainly referring to adverbs that are used in dialogue in fiction to modify common reporting verbs such as said, told, and asked.
His advice was to avoid extravagant attribution or reporting verbs and, moreover, never modify them with an adverb.
So, he grated angrily, or he remarked courteously, are out according to the advice on adverbs by Stephen King.
I have to agree – wholeheartedly. Use adverbs sparingly.
Who is mostly right?
What would I know about what readers like to read today? Our language is always evolving.
Perhaps what I learned in high school about avoiding the use of the passive voice when it is written by writers is now such old-school thinking.
Adverbs that would have been best removed forty years ago by great writers are now perhaps totally, completely, and immensely fashionable.
Then again, I have adapted my writing since that time in other areas.
I can’t remember the last time I used whom in a sentence or a question.
With whom did you go to the cinema? Ouch. It almost hurts the eyes to read it.
I have no problems now with ending a sentence in a preposition. It’s something I can put up with.
I 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.
Related Reading: Do Usually And Normally Share The Same Meaning?
40 thoughts on “Is The Stephen King Adverbs Rule Going Out Of Fashion?”
From his debut novel, The Black Echo, and onward, bestselling author Michael Connelly used adverbs quite often, as well as told instead of showing. It worked out quite well for him.
I’m in the middle of reading The Dead Zone, and that version of Steven King didn’t follow today’s version’s advice. Adverbs are all over the place. It actually surprised me.
I think King’s statement is still (On Writing was published in 2000) cited, followed, and considered to be good advice because the (partial) quotation—“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”—is pithy and clever while seeming to offer definitive advice. The context and his further development of the argument are generally omitted or ignored. On Writing contains terrific wisdom for young (and old) writers, as well as some crappy advice, as most of these types of books do, and is too often discussed as if it contains only this controversial opinion about adverbs. King’s fertile imagination, creativity, ability to engage readers’ emotions and, often, sense of nostalgia, and sheer prolificacy give him, I believe, credibility as an advisor on writing style and other issues, whether one is a fan or not or believes he always follows his own advice (he doesn’t).
As a proofreader of self-published books, I once had to allow “she asked quizzically” to go through to publication because editing was not part of my role. It was almost physically painful. And, in a long-ago former life as a lawyer, I would on one day write Brief A, stating with as much persuasion and conviction as possible, “Clearly, [this argument] is completely correct and therefore must definitively prevail in *this* case,” and the next day write Brief B, stating with equal persuasion and conviction, “Clearly, [this completely opposite and inconsistent argument] is completely correct and therefore must definitively prevail in *this* case.” Adverbs do a lot of heavy lifting in legal writing.
I recall investigating and I believe Churchill never said that, though it is a common misattribution.
Any kind of strong rule is nonsense. Even “show, don’t tell”. History of literature is full of great fiction that was told, proving that there are NO rules for a masterpiece, only guidelines, which all can be broken by the writer who knows what he/she is doing. A writer should always strive to be more than a craftsman.
I agree completely! And yet if you are trying to go the trad publishing route, agents seem to be stuck on all these formulas, even though their own clients don’t follow them all of the time.
It’s clearly a matter of style, but if there are too many adverbs (as in Harry Potter) then it’s about a convincing a target audience with a specific demo. JK Rowling’s audience feels that the quote, “It is my belief … that the truth is generally preferable to lies.” is inspirational. King is right. It’s writing down to an audience that can’t handle complexity.
I agree that adverbs are totally being overused these days. I’m sure some of the times it’s an expression of the writer’s style, or lack thereof. Other time it’s just lazy writing. It’s like my old English teacher used to say, “Don’t tell me, show me.” If you write your dialogue correctly then everyone would already know if they were admonishing you or condescending you. You can pick up so much detail by paying attention to the contexts. Aside from a whodunit, the writer tends to give you enough information to fill you in on the actions and motivations of the character, whereas in a whodunit they try to give you more information than you need in order to lead you away from the person who actually did it. A literary version of the ol’ rope-a-dope style in boxing. But, I find that in great literature you have everything you need ready for you to enjoy without having to resort to adverbs. They are to literature what puns are too comedy, they’re both the lowest form of communicating your ideas in their respective forums. sure you can use them occasionally, but overall you shouldn’t use them if you can help them. It’s ok to have a longer book as long as each word and page is necessary. So do not get upset if your book becomes longer than you originally planned. As long as each word supports your characters and their feelings, then it’s always best to go with the longer version than the short version. But, don’t become lazy in your writing and start using adverbs as it cuts down on the amount of paragraphs you have to write. This isn’t High School and you haven’t been given a maximum word count, which most people followed to the letter (if we had 998 words so far and needed 2 more for the grade, everyone would just pick, “the end” and be done with it :) “So, adverbs,” he says laxidaisically as he rolls his eyes, “are just a lazy form of writing and should be avoided, at all costs.” Thanks for listening. The end. :)
If you go back and read many of King’s early works, particularly his short stories, you’ll find tags chalked full of those pesky distracting adverbs. Now that he’s a seasoned professional, he knows better, and his later stories reflect his learning and expertise in the field. I suspect that much of what you’re seeing are stories written by writers who are still fairly new to their craft and simply haven’t learned any better yet. Or perhaps the old adage, “Write what you know” is in effect: a writer who reads stories filled with adverbs is going to write stories filled with adverbs. Personally, I don’t think it’s an indication that adverbial dialogue tags are making a comeback. More likely, it’s just a sign of the author’s frustration after their fourth revision, when they take one final look at their manuscript and decide, “That’s good enough for me.”
Thanks for clearing that up.
The romance genre uses adverbs to the point of extreme to reach its target audience. The speed bumps of interpretation are left for … um … physical action. More power to them, I say. The writers found what pleased their audience and gave it to them.
Sometimes I think English Major types are making stuff up. They’ve got their idea of how writing should be and bam! no oxford commas, no adverbs, dialog tags, no two spaces before the next sentence, avoid filler words like That and Just, etc.
And then you find nobody else knows this “rule” until we all tell somebody else what we heard…
We all know how the Oxford Comma hate turned out.
As pointed out successful authors and beloved books like Harry Potter have done quite well ignoring these rules.
I think there’s been excellent examples in the comments on when and why to cut out an adverb. Fewer words to make the point is always good. But too few is also bad.
Thanks Derek for the post. I’ll be mindful of the advice.
A tutor from a famous publishing house told our group of aspiring writers that if it had an adverb on the first page a manuscript is binned. Immediately.
Perhaps, that was how they missed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? Every first page of the first chapter is peppered with -ly adverbs.
HP1: … perfectly … hardly … nearly … happily …
HP2: …said Uncle Vernon heartily … said Harry irritably … said Harry quickly.
HP3: … highly … really … nearly … Completely … likely … commonly … particularly … Slowly … carefully … only …
HP4: … easily … plainly … apparently … dramatically … suddenly …
HP5: … usually … slightly … only … loudly … suddenly … said Aunt Petunia unconcernedly…. he said scathingly … really …
HP6: … clearly … only … peculiarly … barely … unfortunately …perfectly … really … mournfully … firmly …
HP7: … briskly … neatly … majestically … visibly
Let’s take the first chapter of Stephen King’s “11-22-63”, published 11 years after his “On Writing”:
“Lung cancer,” he said matter-of-factly, after leading us to a booth at the far end…
“Okay,” I said, agreeably enough.
“Did the radiation do that?” I asked suddenly….
And others, though not directly attributed, but with adverbs!
“Al,” I said. My voice was so low and strengthless I could hardly hear it myself
“…cut back to two a day.” He laughed wheezily.
“Of course. Shock, isn’t it?” He looked at me sympathetically…
“It ain’t counterfeit, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Al sounded wearily amused….
“There you go,” Al said. The gravel had gone out of his voice,
“Nothing’s going to happen to you, buddy. Just go on.” He coughed harshly…
And for those who are interested, these are the “-LY” words from the 6600+ words of Chapter 1:
…He really had…who rarely missed…comes easily to…it carefully by…he actually had…always remarkably cheap…pulled slightly askew…been particularly screechy… Especially not today…was apparently…was certainly better…was currently reading…was mostly correct…not really cat…or probably not cat… been strictly a…music really sucks…was fairly gruesome…were only four…I certainly would…whirring, brightly painted…Less than that, really…but probably not…. Mostly, though…Al was seriously ill…And mortally was probably more…his normally ruddy cheeks…and nearsightedly peering…formerly almost all black…hardly hear it…he said matter-of-factly…laughed wheezily…I absolutely had…was exactly right…clasp it cozily…the cigarettes, actually…I said, agreeably enough…looked fixedly at me…you obviously washed…delicately ruffled wrinkles looked at me sympathetically…Only seeing isn’t…Al only stood…I asked suddenly…shaking slightly…Strictly a rhetorical question…I originally opened…the increasingly gruesome…fit finally tapered…it fully outfitted…Unless it really is…looked at me steadily from his watery, newly old eyes…I looked at him doubtfully…If you really are…fully stocked…Spices, mostly. Coffee… it mostly burned…really look around…I was equally sure…sheaf of bills considerably thicker…sounded wearily amused… It’s probably valuable…Probably nothing…he’ll probably say…I vaguely remembered…there shortly after …now actually crouching…still firmly on…at least temporarily…What exactly was… most likely answer…He coughed harshly…
Maybe I am too thick to get the sarcasm, but isn’t “…totally, completely, and profligately…” the single worst use of adverbs we might have ever seen? Does this make King a hypocrite, or was this a sly way for him to mock himself and underline his actual point?
I’d like to think that King is so brilliant that he was simply making fun of the use of adverbs by using them in the worst manner he could think of, just to mess with our minds a little bit, and that King is confident enough to not really care if that flew over my pointed little head.
But I am not fully convinced.
The message to writers seems to be ‘try to not be timid, be confident, and take care not to use adverbs where they are not really needed’. Or maybe stop using them totally, completely, and profligately (whatever that means).
If a book is a bestseller, it’s a bestseller and the author is doing something right. If one wants to succeed in popular fiction, there is a lot to be said for emulating what works, not condemning it.
Each to his own, of course, but instead of throwing sour grapes, I’d rather make myself some wine and sip to my own success :)
Readers of different genres expect different techniques. That’s not new. Romance readers love heavy doses of adverbs and dialogue tags. They want to be told how to feel so they can speed through each book. This has advantages but can feel to writers as if they are dumbing down their books.
I’m with King that adverbs are easy to overuse. They feel like cheats. But I actually get requests for more of them from test readers. It’s hard to resist the temptation to give in.
Overuse of adverbs can drag down a piece of writing, but I think some writers/editors have gotten a little too strict about King’s no adverb rule. There’s nothing wrong with using adverbs sparingly, and sometimes trying to remove them makes for awkward sentence constructions.
Stephen King uses the adverb in excess in The Stand. He even uses it in dialogue which he states clearly not to. So I wonder, because this is one of his best books yet he violates his own rule in 80% of the manuscript.
Qualifiers are words—many of them adverbs—that modify the meaning of other words. I wasn’t aware of my problem until one of my colleagues read a piece I had written. She said, “You use a whole lot of qualifiers, and it makes your points weaker.”
I don’t enjoy horror and I don’t read King. About five years ago, an editor tried to get me to take every single adverb out of a novella, based on King’s advice. Wondering how one could write without ever using an adverb, I went to the library and found a book of King’s short stories. Choosing one at random, I started reading. About six pages in, I noticed there were lots of adverbs. I went back to the beginning and wrote them all down. If memory serves, I found between 30 and 40 in those six pages, many repeating on the same page. I see King’s advice as a case of “do as I say, not as I do.”
Your editor didn’t know what he was doing, and I’m saddened to see there are people out there charging for such terrible services. Anyone who honestly believes one shouldn’t use adverbs shouldn’t be writing for a living, or helping writers either.
King never said not to use adverbs. Just like you, I have noticed he uses them often – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I use them often, and many people do.
The thing with adverbs is knowing when to use them: Adverbs are often redundant, either repeating information already available or stating the obvious. In other cases, they’re downright unnecessary: In the phrase “Dianne truly felt frightened”, for example, truly is a truly redundant word unless Dianne has a knack for lying to herself. So when writing you just need to make sure that the adverbs you’re using are indeed necessary, otherwise they just clutter the story and add to the word counts many writers have to fight against on a daily basis.
The one point where King states not to use adverbs – and where I take his advice by heart, because it’s true – is in dialogue tags. If you feel the need to let me know Aiden said something lovingly, threateningly, fearfully, or doubtingly, then you’re either a beginner or just a bad writer who tells me these things because they can’t show them by making characters act in such a way I can infer the intentions. If you feel the need to let me know somebody whispered softly or yelled loudly then you’re just being silly by repeating information. Same, if you tell me that Dana dashed hurriedly past the store you’re just repeating information since nobody ever dashes past something leisurely. If you’re running, you’re obviously in a hurry, after all.
However, if you were to say something like…
“I don’t know,” said Dana. Her words came out slowly, almost as if she had to force them out.
Then I would have nothing against that use of the adverb. After all, if you removed it there’d be no way for the reader to know that particular quality on Dana’s speech at the time, and replacing it for a non-adverb description like “Her words came out in a slow fashion” would be just silly, since it would just clutter the writing with needlessly complicated constructions. Note the adverb on that previous sentence.
The thing with adverbs isn’t that you shouldn’t use them. If anyone asks you to excise all adverbs from your book, run away and hire a new editor. The thing with adverbs is knowing when they’re necessary, when they’re redundant, and when they’re just bad writing. If you can master that, you’ll be able to write… competently.
King uses adverbs a lot on dialogue tags in his book The Stand. In fact I was surprised to see how much he did because I read it after reading his memoir and thought. Hmmm, maybe it was a new rule of his. And if it’s one of his best books, perhaps he is going to change his rule back again. ;)
Thank you for that. That’s the best explanation I read on the internet regarding the use of adverbs :)
Sometimes it feels right, and supportable, from the perspective of either a reader or a writer. The appropriateness seems to be based on the logic. If you can take it out and it loses little or nothing, then it’s superfluous and part and parcel of deathbyadverb-ism that SK described. If it loses something, and can be reworded (preferably) or left as is (without annoying or calling attention to itself), then so be it. As someone said, judiciously. It’s as big a decision as when to use italics, or all caps, or hyphens. To me it feels right (writerly?) when the adverb use tells me something extra or indiscernable about the doer, something persistent, not just something transient and thin about the verb itself. For example, I care more if something is being done instinctively, or judiciously, more than if something is being said wryly or sardonically (which I can probably figure out on my own by context). I’m OK knowing that she’s precariously standing on the ledge or bridge rail, not so much if she’s intently, delightedly sipping her coffee. Now if she’s doing it seductively and suggestively, that may be different–but probably still worth rewriting. Bottom line, if it seems superfluous, it probably is. It’s not like SK said “never use adverbs.”
I prefer wherever possible to describe a character’s expression or demeanor, but sometimes that gets a bit heavy as well, particularly when you’re trying to make a dialogue feel fast-paced.
Used sparingly, a good adverb can work well. My general test is this: if it sounds awkward and forced when you read it out loud, it’s a problem. Find another way to convey the feeling, or leave it to the reader’s imagination.
Context is everything.
People who believe they can write rely on adverbs as their imagination does not reach the heights of showing and they fail in describing a person’s emotion; instead they tell the reader how the character is acting, his emotion … need I say more.
Lots of it on the Amazon slush pile.
I think there is some virtue to a well-placed adverb. The problem lies in their overuse.
I agree, Noelle. It’s impossible to write without using adverbs. But when almost every dialogue tag uses an adverb, I have to give up reading any further. The two books I started to read, which gave me the motivation to write this post, were classic examples of habitual adverb overuse. I am not sure if this was intentional or accidental, though.
In the same book, after King denigrates adverbs, he admits to using them. The popularity of his writing has nothing to do with whether or not it contains adverbs: if readers enjoy that genre, they’ll probably like King’s novels.
Adverbs serve a purpose, Christine, as King points out. It’s up to a writer to know when and how to use them, judiciously.
The key is to use vibrant, effective verbs, but it all really comes down to differences in styles. Still, you can’t really argue against King’s success.
I have been a believer in King’s advice, Will. I use said, unless there is very good reason not to do so. But I may have to bow to popular tastes and I might now revise my thinking, reluctantly!
Those top books on Amazon are today’s “pulp fiction and paperback originals” that King refers to. I don’t think much else has changed.
Clearly, Karent, I’m not writing pulp fiction. Maybe I should earnestly try!
I agree wholeheartedly!
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