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Old 12-13-2010, 03:59 AM   #1
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"Let's talk about adverbs in dialogue tags," she said suggestively

Why the massive hate for adverbs in dialogue tags? Can it ever be done "right?"

I'm not talking Tom Swifties ("They had to amputate them both at the ankles," said Tom defeatedly), or about qualifiers that could be turned into stronger verbs ("Said suggestively" from the thread title should be "suggested") but about cases where the adverb actually adds something to the sentence.

For example,

"You know I love you," he said coldly.

is miles away from

"You know I love you," he said softly.

And while I think "softly" could be omitted from the second one, I feel "coldly" adds something to the first example that would be hard to replicate with a different verb or by changing the dialogue.

But anything, anything other than "You know I love you," he said lovingly.



So. Adverbs in dialogue tags. All bad? Or can they work in certain cases?
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:23 AM   #2
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Nothing is all bad, of course, but in my mind, there are far better ways to show what the adverb is saying.

For instance:

"You know I love you," he said coldly.

What about:

"You know I love you," he said, his voice hard.

S
he touched his shoulder; he pulled away.

Okay, it's not brilliant, but it gives the reader the sense of cold instead of just saying coldly.

And honestly, instead of she said softly, I'd go with she whispered, or something like:

...she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:27 AM   #3
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:28 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dgrintalis View Post
"You know I love you," he said, his voice hard.

Yeah, this is how I normally handle it. In fact, I do those types of descriptive clauses a little too often.

The phrase from my own writing that tipped off this line of thought is this:

Quote:
“I think they do ankle rings,” I said distractedly. I couldn’t stop staring at the feet.
I suppose the follow up line makes "distractedly" unnecessary, but I can't bring myself to get rid of it.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:28 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by dgrintalis View Post
...she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
I like this approach. It seems a sneaky, like a word-ninja.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:30 AM   #6
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I thought I just posted this, but it's not showing up. It's a quote from my web page--is that bad?

For the most part, the dialogue itself will tell the reader how it was spoken. Not always. There are times when the words contradict the tone.



"I murdered my father," he said casually.



Or:


"I'm really looking forward to it," she said dolefully.


Even those examples seem a little lame, though. Usually – almost always – there's a better way to show how the words were spoken. How about a little background business?


Here's our casual man:

He held up two almost identical ties, trying them against the pinstripes of the suit on the hanger. "I murdered my father, of course," he said, and dropped the rejected tie onto the dresser.


And our doleful woman:


She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Yeah," she said, "Right. I'm really looking forward to it."
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:36 AM   #7
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I'm one of those that thinks some adverbs vs. no adverbs is a matter of style and taste. Personally I like a few adverbs here and there, but I accept that there are some people who don't like any adverbs at all. In any case, I certainly use the occasional adverb to modify a dialogue tag when the distinction is necessary.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:37 AM   #8
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omg your character rolled her eyes

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Old 12-13-2010, 04:39 AM   #9
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I accept there are rules, guidelines, advice, instructions, all designed to help us be the best writer we can be.

What I hate is when the word 'always' or 'never' is used in any rule.

Not that anyone is doing that here, just needed to say it.

*Goes off to softly eat popcorn.*
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:42 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rhubix View Post
I like this approach. It seems a sneaky, like a word-ninja.
Ah, except it has a qualifier (little). My brain searches and destroys qualifiers. Perhaps, 'He had to focus to hear her voice over the rain pouring off the roof,' would be more vivid and robust.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:43 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jaksen View Post
What I hate is when the word 'always' or 'never' is used in any rule.
Quoted For Truth.
(I just did a blog post about this. Rebel against the rules! Educatedly of course. )
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:44 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bonitakale View Post
He held up two almost identical ties, trying them against the pinstripes of the suit on the hanger. "I murdered my father, of course," he said, and dropped the rejected tie onto the dresser.
This is what I'm aspiring to.


Quote:
Originally Posted by bonitakale View Post
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Yeah," she said, "Right. I'm really looking forward to it."
In this case, I feel like the "Yeah. Right." and the beat between express her sarcasm well enough to make the sighing and rolling of eyes unnecessary.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:52 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Brutal Mustang View Post
Ah, except it has a qualifier (little). My brain searches and destroys qualifiers. Perhaps, 'He had to focus to hear her voice over the rain pouring off the roof,' would be more vivid and robust.
Let me just say one thing about that approach. It reads okay but it's a bit verbose. Too-much-wordiness, in other words.

Sometimes the word softly, coldly or callously simply works. Sometimes you need to just move the dialogue along. Sometimes the adverb isn't the monster which (some) make it out to be.

For me, when in doubt, leave it (the adverb) out.
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Old 12-13-2010, 05:04 AM   #14
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"I don't mind when an adverb TELLS the readers how something is said that is direct opposite of what is being said," he said drunkenly.

That said, most adverbs are telling and can be seen as lazy -- a quick and dirty way for the writer to convey something. There's nothing wrong with "he said coldly," but is it possible for the writer to challenge himself and come up with something more vivid? More showing? More unique?
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Old 12-13-2010, 05:31 AM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dgrintalis View Post
"You know I love you," he said coldly.

What about:

"You know I love you," he said, his voice hard.

S
he touched his shoulder; he pulled away.

Okay, it's not brilliant, but it gives the reader the sense of cold instead of just saying coldly.
The addition of action is good, and can clarify dialogue to the point that adverbs are extraneous.

But saying something in a "hard voice" isn't the same as saying something "coldly." Just as saying something "softly" doesn't necessarily equate with "quietly."

I'm in favor of lingual precision over a stubborn avoidance of adverbs at all costs.

Adverbs exist for a reason. They're tools of communication. They're not verboten. And twisting your prose into knots just to avoid the dreaded adverb can make the prose just as clunky and tedious as adverbial overindulgence.
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Old 12-13-2010, 05:37 AM   #16
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More often than not, however, you don't need the adverb if your dialogue and context are clear. Adverbs themselves are not the problem; the writer is. When the writer doesn't trust the story, doesn't make the dialogue work harder, or relies on adverbs to TELL us something that can be done with action or the dialogue itself, over time the readers will sense that the writer is kind of lazy and lame. That's the real pitfall of adverbs, not the occasional use to clarify something.

As writers, we should be allowed to write all the adverbs we want in first draft. However, in rewrites, we need to examine every adverb and adjective to see if they've earned their places in the storytelling, instead of being a crutch or a lazy step.

To me, adverbs are useful when there is absolutely no verbs to describe how something is said ("said softly," for example, which is not the same as "whispered" or "murmured"), or when what is being said contrasts with how it's said: "I love you, too," he said coldly.
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Old 12-13-2010, 06:10 AM   #17
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Adverbs themselves are not the problem; the writer is.
This is my new motto.
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Old 12-13-2010, 06:29 AM   #18
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Let me just say one thing about that approach. It reads okay but it's a bit verbose. Too-much-wordiness, in other words.

Sometimes the word softly, coldly or callously simply works. Sometimes you need to just move the dialogue along. Sometimes the adverb isn't the monster which (some) make it out to be.

I strongly concur with this. Overshowing something that can be conveyed with one word can be distracting, not necessarily more vivid, and are often uses stock imagery. More detailed descriptions of how someone said something are best if they are really unique, and not only convey how someone said something, but something particular about that character. Unless you have a brillant way of conveying it, just...use the adverb.

Although I also think that most of the time even the adverb will be unecessary for dialogue. Trust your reader to interpret the context. Much of the joy of reading is engaging the text, making inferences, and reconstructing the tones and meanings in your own mind. The less the author tells the reader, the more the reader can make their own inferences. The best dialogue also engages with the context and the rhythm of the prose, and leaves room for the reader to hear the tone for themselves.

I put in a lot of adverbs and descriptors when I first write something, but I do it for myself, to help me picture the flow of the conversation, and then I take most out in revision.
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Old 12-13-2010, 06:53 AM   #19
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Quote:
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Let me just say one thing about that approach. It reads okay but it's a bit verbose. Too-much-wordiness, in other words.
I'm all for saying things as briefly as possible. And in this case, I'd be hitting two birds with a stone: describing how she said it and putting in a sensory detail concerning the weather outside.

Qualifiers weaken writing 90% of the time.
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Old 12-13-2010, 06:56 AM   #20
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Old 12-13-2010, 08:17 AM   #21
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I like this thread! Loads of good examples!

and, for the record, my MC spends a good portion of her time rolling her eyes or looking at other people rolling theirs. True story.

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Old 12-13-2010, 04:32 PM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by maestrowork View Post
When the writer doesn't trust the story, doesn't make the dialogue work harder, or relies on adverbs to TELL us something that can be done with action or the dialogue itself, over time the readers will sense that the writer is kind of lazy and lame. That's the real pitfall of adverbs, not the occasional use to clarify something.
I don't see this, Ray. Most of the 'readers' I know don't consider adverbs to be a problem, and they certainly don't make assumptions about the writer being lazy or lame for using adverbs. They just enjoy the story.

What makes you think readers feel the way you say?
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:36 PM   #23
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Mea culpa, Jaksen. I do tend to roll eyes and drop eyes. You can say, "He raised his eyes to Heaven," or "She looked down," but I really don't think there's anything wrong with rolling them or dropping them or fixing them on something, any more than with folding arms or curling up in a chair. Or, for that matter, sinking hearts or stomach clutches. You have to have some way to say these things.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:42 PM   #24
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Quote:
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Why the massive hate for adverbs in dialogue tags? Can it ever be done "right?"
It can be done right. Just about anything can, but it's damn hard to do so since adverbs are all about telling. More often than not, they're clumsy and graceless.
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Old 12-13-2010, 04:57 PM   #25
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I think we may be overthinking this :P

If unsure, write your adverb in. Then go back and trim out the ones that seem unnecessary.
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