From the Forge: The Verb/Adverb Addiction in Dialogue

Recently I posted a column titled “Elmore Leonard Says.” You may recall that Leonard’s third rule for writing was “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue,” and his fourth rule was “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said.” About dialogue tags, Leonard says, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character. The verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.” Many writers, in fact, say that the verb said in a dialogue tag is in fact invisible. A phrase like “he said” can clarify who is speaking without even registering on the reader’s radar.

Gloria Kempton’s book Dialogue describes what she calls “The Adjective, Adverb, and Inappropriate Tag Addiction.” Kempton says, “The funny thing about the adverb addiction is that the words chosen are often made up and look ridiculous when written down.” After offering a few outrageous examples, such as ragingly, laughingly, disapprovingly, alarmingly, she adds, “Even more common adverbs, like sweetly, leisurely, and assiduously, are unnecessary if you are working hard on your dialogue so it communicates the emotion and intensity you want it to have.”

I can hear people asking now, “But how does dialogue communicate emotion and intensity without the adverbs?” Kempton offers a straightforward answer: “Sometimes you need a couple of assistants, narrative and action.” I would explain it this way. What a character does is much more effective in communicating emotion and intensity than what the narrator tells us about it. For example, if one character punches another and says, “How does that work for you?” the writer does not need to add angrily as a dialogue tag. The action says it all. The same would be true for the college graduate who throws her hat in the air and says, “I made it!” No need for happily, or joyfully, or excitedly. Again the action says it all.

Facial expression and posture are closely related to action. Using description to help the reader to see the speaker’s face and posture not only communicates the emotional tone of what is said, it also brings the reader into the moment of the scene, whereas dropping an adverb like wryly onto a verb presents an abstract concept to the reader. I would argue it does more to exclude the reader from the moment than it does to bring the reader in.

There is also, of course, what is said to communicate emotion and intensity. When your character says, “Damn you, Betty. That’s the last time you’ll get away with that!” you don’t need any qualifiers added to the verb says. Tom Chiarella, in Writing Dialogue, from Story Press, says, “If the words of the characters are charged and chosen, they don’t need the help of a descriptive dialogue tag.”

Action, description, and content are all more immediate ways of showing emotion and intensity than intrusive, distracting adverbs. Listen to Elmore Leonard’s advice and don’t stick your nose into the character’s business.


Published by Gary Guinn

Retired English professor. Dog lover. Craft beer lover. Occasional writer.

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