"Not as long as your dialog is so trite," she sniffed, turning on her six-inch stiletto heels and storming out of the room.
I can almost see the looks of despair and hear the sound of rolling eyeballs from those writers among you who read the above exchange. Basic parts of speech, such as adverbs, adjectives and dialog identifiers have been almost excoriated by modern writing instructors. Authors are told to banish such words from their vocabulary, as use (or more fairly, overuse) of that language is banal or worse yet, moribund. How did this happen?
At one time, English prose was filled with all manner of the these three dreaded language parts of speech. Ernest Hemingway and others popularized the trend toward more succinct prose during the early 20th century. In a world of sound bites, "elevator pitches," microblogs and flash fiction, readers - allegedly - only want to read material bereft of as much clutter as possible.
As a reader, I've noticed a lot of color missing in modern writing as a result of this boycott of modifiers and have found it unfortunate. Compare the works of Dickens, one of the most popular writer of his day and beyond, with today's literary fiction. Therefore, as a writer, I attempt to conform to the modernist ways, even though it irks me to do so.
When is it okay to break these supposed "rules?"
My first rule on rules: it's your writing (or painting or sculpture or musical composition), break the rules (or not) whenever you want. That freedom comes with a warning, though - your audience may get turned off by what you've created, so if you're not about collecting eyeballs and all about expressing yourself, then break away!
My second rule on rules: like most things in life, moderation is the key to success, even when it comes to following rules. An adverb here, a creative dialog identifier there won't destroy your prose. However, too much of anything isn't a good idea (though you may be able to think of some exceptions that have nothing to do with writing).
My third rule on rules: there are no rules. However, there are some guidelines (don't challenge me on my semantics, please!) that I'm following and will share here:
- Before you resort to an adverb, think about a better verb that eliminates the need to use it. For example, instead of writing "He quickly ran to the neighbor's house," you could write, "He sped to the neighbor's house."
- You can reduce the number of adjectives in your prose by either choosing a more descriptive noun ("jalopy" instead of "old car", for example. As Mark Twain said in regards to adjectives, "When in doubt, strike it out."
- While "said" is the preferred dialog identifier, there are a couple of points to consider here: first, "he said, she said," ad nauseam, is tiring to read, even if you're fully engaged in the dialog (though most readers have learned to ignore them anyway); second, the occasional "groaned," "muttered," "exclaimed," "cried" and the rest are fine, but they can be just as distracting as the constant parade of "saids" and "replieds."
- One final observation is worth noting: in my travels, I find that writers no longer know how to read as a reader. Rather, most writers, especially the less experienced ones, overanalyze every bit of text in a piece, with both eyes open for errors and "gotchas." Every writer learns how to be a critic as they are developing their craft, a useful tool when self-editing and somewhat desired in writing groups. The problem is many lose their ability to get lost in the tale for all the over-concentration on grammatical misuse! Give me a good story and I can ignore the occasional slip; however, if the story is dull and lifeless - as some may argue happens when you make certain parts of speech "illegal" - then I close the book and put it in the Goodwill pile.
No matter what you do, make sure your writing is enjoyable and not a tedious chore. Have fun!