f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 5 of Dialogue – Adverbs in Dialogue, When if Ever

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Day 5 of Dialogue – Adverbs in Dialogue, When if Ever

First of all, thank you to all who responded to yesterday’s post so positively. Your trust is tantamount to me and I’m honored to have earned it.


Today I did something rather unscientific. I browsed nine modern books to see how they treat adverbs in dialogue. These cover a range of genres (and forms, too) but all have been pretty highly regarded in terms of pure writing. There was a trend I noticed in the first three books the other day and I wanted to see if it continued.

The nine books were: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber. The Whore’s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo. (Were you expecting someone else?) Cathedral by Raymond Carver. House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Spartina by John Casey. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathem Lethem. Milk by Darcey Steinke. The Passion of Reverend Nash by Rachel Basch. And Tiger Lillie by Lisa Samson.

My results probably don’t mean much but here they are.

Most of the books had almost no adverbs at all in dialogue. (Most of them had little more than “he said/she said” actually and often no attribution at all, reinforcing the notion that good dialogue stands on its own.) If they did use an adverb, the word chosen seemed either:

1.) Specific – “stoically,” “wryly,” “gratefully” These words all tend to modify the dialogue in more precise ways, making the adverb carry its own weight. Boring adverbs like “angrily,” “thoughtfully” didn’t show up at all.

2.) Tonal – “quietly,” “softly”. It’s hard to get tone across (especially quietness) without punctuation or CAPITALIZATION!

The one book that seemed to have more adverbs than any other was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This could just be the author’s style. It could be the fact that the book uses much more dialogue than the others, thereby increasing the odds. It could be the genre—detective fiction—allows for it. I’m not quite sure.

So, can you take anything from this? If anything, run a FIND command on your document with *ly in the search parameters. Check how many adverbs you dig up. Check how many are in dialogue. If they’re popping up a lot you probably need to delete some and you may need to read through your dialogue to make sure it carries most of the weight of meaning and voice in your story.

(Somebody, I think it might’ve been Mark Bertrand, suggested the need for reading your work aloud at some point. It’s a good idea and I think this is one place where boring dialogue stands out.)
Tomorrow we look at the thing that gives me more night-terrors than anything else in dialogue—dialect. Continue on to Day 6 of dialogue.