Friday, February 24, 2012

Guest Blog: Alicia Rasley Defends Adverbs

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.


Virginia Winters said...

I too regret the loss of adverbs and the synonyms for said. Perhaps the pendulum of political correctness will swing back and we can reclaim some of our favourites.

Robin Cain said...

Just when I've trained myself to stick to 'said'....

mark kline said...

I disagree with much of what Alicia writes. Her example of the wife saying: “Of course you're right dear. You're always right.” Even without any context, this line says irony to me. With context -- the characters, situation, and so on -- the irony should come to life. Or if the wife really means this, the irony should be put to death. To me, an adverb here might take away one of the pleasures of reading – reading between the lines. There are many ways to convey tone of voice. Context is certainly one. Situation. Knowing the character speaking. Action. Verbs (I see many, many writers still using verbs, btw). A more realistic reproduction of the dialogue itself (At last she said, “It's … it's such a … beautiful dream.”) Physical description of speaker. Being inside characters' heads (“We could go to my place,” he said, thinking ahead.) Italics (We *could* go to my place,” he said.) And sure, adverbs, preferably with a touch of elegance (“… as gently as she could, ...”).

Alicia said...

Mark, you must be one of those elegantly sparse modern writers! Good for you. I like your suggested dialogue, though I'm not sure italics in dialogue would satisfy the purists. I have friends who won't even allow the use of semicolons in dialogue!


Clive said...

Well, I don't use 'said' anyway, I use action tags if necessary, so the whole arguement is moot to me.

Don McCandless said...

I recall reading an article, in Writer’s Digest if memory serves, stating the word ‘said’ should be a writer’s primary method of tagging speech. The author insisted the word ‘said’ becomes invisible to the reader. I thought, this person has never listened to an audio book. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a ‘he said’ in a dialogue tag. Like fingernails on a blackboard the writer announces his presence with every ‘writerly’ tag he or she uses.

The use of an adverb in a tag is author intrusion. One may argue the use of adverbs is an acceptable tool in this context, but not that this method is an attempt by the author to influence the reader’s level of involvement.

If the writer allowed his characters to carry this task, wouldn’t the resulting POV and reader experience be deepened? For the last year I’ve been writing without dialogue tags in an attempt to deepen POV. A daunting task that I’m not always successful in pulling off, but an effort I’m not ready to give up.

Alicia said...

Robin, I'm going to call for the return of "expostulated" next!

Virginia, yes, I do keep saying, "It takes all kinds!" What works for us might not work for Mark, and what works for Mark might not work for us. I would, for example, say that the best dialoguists of the last 30 years in my opinion were Patrick O'Brian and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and both of them are free with the adverbs. But they both come out of the great tradition of 19th C ironist writing, not the more terse 20th C style.

No one writes dialogue like Patrick O'Brian, but then, no one writes anything as well as he does!

Alicia said...

Don and Clive, I like action tags too, and use them frequently, especially in the middle of a dialogue passage. What do you think about placement of the action tag (before the speech, in the middle, at the end)? At the end it often "sounds" clunky to me, but usually at the start or middle of the quote, it "sounds" graceful.

You can tell I listen to audiobooks too!

But I'm going to ask about this "Author intrusion" thing. Why is it author intrusion to narrate the tone of voice (sarcastically) but not that the wind is howling? It's all narration. Why privilege action over description (and I think adverbs, just like adjectives, are description- describing what's happening)?

Dan, how do you go with mostly action tags? My problem is I sometimes opt for trivial actions. I find it's easier to action-tag when I think through ahead of time some task that this character will be doing during this stretch of dialogue, like he's cooking an omelet, so he has to get the eggs, prepare the pan, crack the eggs... Can you tell I skipped breakfast? :)

Anonymous said...

The thread of the argument seems to support Alicia's fundamental point -- different strokes for different folks. Any style, if done really well, is appreciated by serious readers.

Deb Lawson said...

Some of the most stilted and unemotional books I've read were stripped of adverbs. (Not to mention boring.) It's never a good idea to view these things through a black and white lens. Next thing you know, it'll come back to bite you in the ol' patootie when you have to break your own rule.

Just sayin'...

Don McCandless said...

A follow up to Alicia's comments and questions.

The wind outside the cabin howled through the surrounding trees. Shutters banged, windows rattled, and the door's metal weather stripping buzzed like a sack of angry bees.

"You going out for firewood before all heck breaks loose?" Sam flipped the burgers in the skillet one last time. Dave didn't answer.
"You hear me?"


A pop and a bang from the direction of the fireplace told Sam the book Dave had his nose buried in just hit something solid.

Dave walked around the table. "Sorry man. Good book. You say something?"

Sam pulled the skillet from the fire and covered the pan. "Yeah. Dinner's ready, and we're running out of wood." He headed for the door and grabbed his coat." Let's get some in here before the snow hits."

Alicia, I think of you write, 'the sound of the howling wind had Sam and Dave shouting' it's author intrusion. I try to avoid filters in all narrative secions and action tags to avoid this problem.

Rick Bylina said...

Several people have emailed me on the side. Blogger isn't giving them any love. Here are some abbreviated comments:

* Robin Helwig-Larsen: "Alicia: I agree cautiously."

* Carter Jefferson: I did find the adverb essay interesting, and had some fascinating things to say about it, but you'll never know what.

* Elmore Leonard, esq: What the...

And so on.

Edittorrent said...

Rick, I had trouble posting a comment in IE, so switched to another browser, and it worked okay then.
Now the problem is just the captcha-- I can never figure those letters out. :)

Alicia said...

Not fair to have him grilling burgers, Don, when I'm starving!

Your passage narrates this conversation between them, and is in Sam's POV, right? How would you deepen and add conflict here? For example, how would you show if they like each other or hate each other, if Dave is resentful or excited about going out with Sam to get wood for the fire, if Sam's about to take a piece of that wood and hit Dave over the head? The action's there, and I like it. Is there a way to infuse emotion/attitude in there?

How do you feel about adding thought/feeling (the point of view, I mean, for the POV character)? How do you generally do that? Of course, observation and narration of the action is part of POV, and that's all through Sam's eyes and ears.

Now I'm going to have-- or at least dream about-- a burger with a fried egg on top. Actually, that sounds sort of scary!

Saralee said...

Seems to me that adverbs (and those myriad synonyms for "said") are excellent in moderation.

They're like spices, adding flavor and vibrancy to an otherwise bland narrative.

BTW, loved Rick Bylina's comment.

Edittorrent said...

Saralee, good analogy there-- spices. A bit of salt, good. Too much.... inedible.
Okay, either I have to get something to eat, or we have to stop talking about food.

Isn't it funny how when we discuss "voice," it's so often related to food and taste. Hmm.

Paul Lamb said...

I really think this is governed first by the narrative voice you choose to use (and last by so-called "rules" in so-called "writer" publications). In an Iris Murdoch novel, for example, "he expostulated" would be perfectly at home. A literate narrator would always use the best word, not necessarily the sanctioned word.

And what's this nutty business about using "said" because it is invisible??? If a word's invisible, it's not doing enough work in the telling.

Like everything (including "said") adverbs can be overused, but when they convey the right meaning, they are the right word.

I just keep looking at writing I admire, writing that I think works, writing that I remember long after reading it, and I see all of the so-called rules being broken. I'll look to these writers for guidance rather than the "rules."

Edittorrent said...

I'm with you, Paul. I'm an English teacher, and into rules, but even for me, some of these rules get way in the face of voice, if you don't mind a mixed metaphor to start the day right. :)

I remember someone told me, "The rule is, when you're in someone's point of view, you should never say their name, because no one things his/her own name." And I thought, first, well, I do (my maiden name, for some reason), and anyway, no one thinks in third person, and many novels are in third person. And the contortions that must be gone through to get that character name out there without just saying it... well, there was one where the unnamed narrator got a letter, and looked at the address on the front, and read it "aloud": "Jane Clemens. 65 Katydid Lane."
I think I prefer just the normal way: Jane Clemens opened the refrigerator and searched among her roommate's plain yogurt cartons for something real to eat.

Good grief! More food talk!

We have only language to tell the story, only word. No pictures, no sounds. Some writers make use of more of the tools we have then others.

But there's value in assessing what each "rule" is supposed to accomplish, so "no adverbs" and "use action quote tags" can certainly point the way to a verb-driven narrative, which might be much more suitable to active writing, where modifiers could slow down the pace.

But not everyone is writing action-oriented books, and in that case, maybe examining the obverse of "the rule" would be helpful too?


Paul Lamb said...


I'm not saying that a student should not learn the rules of grammar or that a technical writer or legal writer (or even a journalist) should not adhere to them.

My assertion is that creative writers (fiction, essay, and especially poetry) have no obligation to follow the so-called rules. We can re-invent the rules. As long as communication is achieved, I don't want to let rules get in the way.

Edittorrent said...

I agree, Paul. "Rules" can be good guidelines, but really are made to be broken by astute writers who know their own voices.

And "don't use adverbs" is a particularly bad "rule".

We should ask Dickens about it. Or Faulkner. I would love to hear what he says about this new trend of one-sentence paragraphs!

Rick Bylina said...

Alicia...Congratulations for jumping into fourth place all-time on my blog for page views in just a few days. Who knew adverb accolades or admonishment would generate such fervor. While you may never get to the #1 spot, well done generating a topic that writers can mull over and look at their own style in a new light. Maybe next time we can get a rousing discussion going over the "to be" verb: lazy writer's fallback or most powerful verb in the universe?

Edittorrent said...

Yes,adverbs are controversial! :)

It's funny what gets writers going. We should get going on "what constitutes passive writing" and "what's wrong with 'was'?"