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

  • 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
  • October 19, 2018 at 10:22 am
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    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.

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  • October 19, 2018 at 7:14 am
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    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. :)

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  • March 2, 2018 at 3:41 pm
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    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.”

    Reply
  • January 3, 2018 at 2:44 pm
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    Thanks for clearing that up.

    Reply

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