As You Wish: Adverbing Your Verbs, or In Defense of Adverbs in Dialogue Tags
If we're trying to replicate the experience of a conversation for the reader, we want to convey more than just what is spoken. In an actual conversation, there are actions and body language, both of which can be described in the narrative, and will convey something about what the speaker means. (For example, if he grips his hands into fists, that's going to convey "anger.")
But "tone of voice" is another way we convey meaning in a conversation-- especially a meaning that is in contrast with the words being spoken. A woman might say, "Of course you're right, dear. You're always right." And you'd think, oh, she thinks her husband is infallible!
Of course, the speaker probably DOESN'T think her husband is infallible. She's probably saying that-- how? SARCASTICALLY. If we were in the room and heard her tone of voice, we would hear the sarcasm in her words.
In the past, tone of voice was usually conveyed through the quote tag, the actual verb used for the action of speaking. Remember all those great synonyms for said? He intoned, or she muttered, or he hissed, or she demanded, or he commanded, or she exclaimed, or of course, everyone's favorite: He ejaculated. Alas (I love all of those! :), a couple decades ago, many writers reacted against the undoubted overuse of those quote tags and decided the only allowable quote tag was "said". He said. She said. Simple. Streamlined. But unfortunately, too straightforward to convey any nuance, any subtext, even any conflict between what is said and what is meant.
The way in prose we convey tone of voice (if we don't get to use "expostulated!") is through adverbs. Said + adverb. No, we don't have to add an adverb to every piece of dialogue. Sometimes the speech line itself says all we need to know-- "I don't need any help!" for example. "Luke, I'm your father."
Examples of meaningful quote tag-adverb combos, from a few of the best dialoguists:
"I wish you'd go home," said Lethbridge wearily. (Georgette Heyer)
"Dad," she said, as gently as she could, "I don't need your support." (Susan Elizabeth Phillips)
At last she said unsteadily, "It's such a beautiful dream!" (Susan Howatch)
"Come now, John Bell," said the bosun reproachfully. (Patrick O'Brian)
"No, no," said Alverstoke soothingly. "No one is as stupid as Endymion." (Georgette Heyer)
Sure, if your characters say only what they mean, and are never mistaken, and never raise their voices or ask questions, or characters who don't always tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you can probably get away with using only "said." But if you're writing characters with conflicting desires and mixed motivations, who sometimes lie or sometimes express skepticism or sarcasm, or just have eloquent and expressive voices, well, consider amplifying the "said" with a handy adverb-- just when you need to, when the words they speak aren't enough to convey all of what is really meant.
Bio: Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning Regency novelist who has been published by major publishers such as Dell, NAL, and Kensington. Her women’s fiction novel The Year She Fell has been a Kindle #1 bestseller in the contemporary fiction category, and her newest book is Poetic Justice, available on Kindle. Her articles on writing are collected on her website.