Stephen King On Adverbs – Is His Rule Going Out Of Fashion

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I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs

Stephen King’s dislike of adverbs is well-known, but are writers now ignoring his advice?

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 the top 100 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 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.

 

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 damned ly adverbs.

“Oh no!” I moan, begrudgingly.

 

So, what’s an adverb?

It is a part of speech. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or another adverb.

The most recognisable is formed by adding ly to words such as sadly, modestly, greedily, angrily, happily or terribly. These are often adverbs of manner and can be used to modify adjectives and other adverbs.

Examples of time include yesterday, tomorrow, now, then, late and early.

They are also used for frequency like sometimes, never, rarely or often.

They can also be used as 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. They are always followed by a comma.

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 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.

 

More reading: A Dangling Modifier Is Simple To Fix If You Know How

 

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Derek Haines

Derek Haines is an Australian author, living in Switzerland.

34 thoughts on “Stephen King On Adverbs – Is His Rule Going Out Of Fashion

  • December 19, 2017 at 11:19 pm
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    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.

    Reply
  • September 26, 2017 at 11:23 pm
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    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.

    Reply
  • August 30, 2017 at 6:33 pm
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    Thanks Derek for the post. I’ll be mindful of the advice.

    Reply
  • May 21, 2017 at 10:41 am
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    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.

    Reply
    • June 3, 2017 at 10:42 am
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      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

      Reply
  • April 19, 2017 at 8:52 am
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    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…

    Reply
  • March 24, 2017 at 8:53 pm
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    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).

    Reply
  • January 11, 2017 at 7:57 am
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    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 :)

    Reply
  • December 28, 2016 at 6:06 pm
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    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.

    Reply
  • December 23, 2016 at 9:34 pm
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    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.

    Reply
  • December 19, 2016 at 4:02 am
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    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.

    Reply

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