July 02, 2004

The sins of dialogue attribution

Mark's post from earlier today reminds me that Stephen King also admonishes the use of adverbs in dialogue attribution in his book On Writing (p. 124, emphasis in the original):

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day ... fifty the day after that ... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions ... and not even then, if you can avoid it.

After about a page of examples and critical commentary, King assails dialogue-attribution verbs other than "said":

Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:
"Put down the gun, Utterson!" Jekyll grated.
"Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped.
"You damned tease!" Bill jerked out.
Don't do these things. Please oh please.

King then praises "Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution" (Elmore Leonard gets his due later on in the book) and admits that he himself is "just another ordinary sinner", having "spilled out [his] share of adverbs in [his] time".

On Writing is not a particularly memorable book for its advice on writing -- I picked up the paperback mostly for the autobiographical stuff, especially King's description of his car accident in 1999. But this bit on the sins of dialogue attribution struck me when I read it because I happened to be reading a very sinful book at the same time: David Chilton's financial self-help book The Wealthy Barber.

(Why was I reading a financial self-help book? I had recently landed a steady-ish job, gotten married, and bought a house. Financial education in our nation's high schools is as nonexistent as linguistic education. My wife had received a copy of the book as a gift from her aunt. That's why. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way ...)

Chilton's book has some pretty good advice (for those of us who are financially fairly ignorant, anyway). Mind you, this advice could have been summarized on a single (maybe legal-sized) sheet of paper, but Chilton decided to write it as a kind of play in several acts. The real problem, however, was that I couldn't stand Chilton's style. I couldn't really put my finger on what it was that I hated so much, though, until I read King's bit on dialogue attribution. Here are some examples from a random page of Chilton's book, just to give you a taste (p. 64, if you must know):

  1. "Yeah, Roy, and you know what else?" Cathy beamed.
  2. "[...] Your advice last month may have been great, but I'm not all that happy with my haircut," I kidded.
  3. "I guess I'll have to get a new bowl," Roy quipped.
  4. "Or as long, I hope," Tom interjected.
  5. "Or as long," Roy confirmed.
  6. "And to think that I looked forward to this for a month," Cathy groaned.
  7. "Yeah. I read an article the other day saying that the majority of Americans are overinsured," I pointed out, thinking that for once I'd look informed.
  8. "Wrong," Roy replied.

Flipping over to pp. 134-135, we find said triumphantly, bristled, verified, complained with a wink, replied sheepishly, shrugged, agreed, frowned, noted, responded, consented, cautioned, argued, and laughed.

Larry McMurtry this guy isn't. I hope that Chilton and others like him come across King's book someday -- or, better, Elmore Leonard's legal-sized summary of rules.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 2, 2004 03:24 PM