Is Stephen King’s Adverb Rule Going Out Of Fashion For Writers?

The Stephen King Adverbs Rule Is 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 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 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 another adverb.

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, or an adverb phrase 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.

 

Modifying adjectives

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 King’s advice.

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 at high school about avoiding the use of a passive verb and 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.

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent writing and blogging, as well as testing and taming new technology.

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37 thoughts on “Is Stephen King’s Adverb Rule Going Out Of Fashion For Writers?

  • Avatar for Rick Eames
    September 4, 2020 at 7:53 pm
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    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.

    Reply
  • Avatar for Pearl Bella
    July 20, 2020 at 9:01 pm
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    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.

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  • Avatar for alex
    April 16, 2020 at 10:50 pm
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    I recall investigating and I believe Churchill never said that, though it is a common misattribution.

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  • Avatar for vonessek
    April 25, 2019 at 9:00 pm
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    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.

    Reply

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