Friday, January 27, 2017

The Much Maligned Adverb (#amwriting #craft #StephenKing)

Stephen King cover

The adverb is not your friend.”

This pronouncement, by Stephen King in his influential little volume On Writing, has inspired floods of red ink. Adverbs—especially those ending in -lyarouse the irrational ire of critics and editors. “Weak!” they exclaim. “Verbose!” “Unnecessary!” “Outdated!” Some of the more poorly educated even claim that adverbs violate the rules of grammar.

Nonsense.

I’m a writer. That means words are my tools. All words. I’m not about to countenance some pundit (or even a best-selling, highly skilled author) telling me I should jettison an entire class of words just because they’ve become unfashionable.

I understand the logic behind King’s critique. Novice authors frequently overuse this part of speech, describing the manner in which a generic action is performed rather than search for a stronger or more specific verb. Excessive use of adverbs can be a sign of laziness. Certainly, they’re not the best tool for every occasion. A rich repertoire of evocative verbs can be far more effective than a bustling stable of adverbs.

That’s no argument for banning them outright.

Editors argue that adverbs slow prose down, making it less potent and direct. That’s probably true. However, sometimes I want to slow the pace of a paragraph. My personal style differs from the spare, unadorned prose King creates. I learned to write in a less hurried era, when an author could afford to explore her scenes and her characters in a more leisurely manner.

I had the notion that I’d post a few paragraphs from my current work in progress, then strip out the adverbs to show the effects of this edit. What I discovered is that my most recent stories use far fewer adverbs than I expected. I guess the unfashionable status of this part of speech has in fact influenced my writing as well. I also realized that these days I tend to use adverbs to modify adjectives or participles rather than verbs—to qualify or limit descriptions.

In any case, I think removing these adverbs would make the prose less effective. In some cases, it would even change the meaning. Here’s a snippet to illustrate what I mean.

Would you like to see my drawing, Dr. Gardner?” Alisha offers me a sheet of paper, presumably the picture that so thoroughly captured her attention yesterday. Color explodes off the page, garnet red, cerulean blue, shockingly bright purple. In contrast with its violent hues, the lines of the drawing are delicate and precise. Meticulously rendered gardens and palaces fill the every inch of the paper—arched gates curtained with ivy, marble fountains spilling silvery cascades over velvet green lawns, onion-domed towers soaring toward feathery clouds. I'm reminded of the jewel-toned miniatures painted by the eighteenth century Ottoman masters, until I look more closely. Then it is Hieronymous Bosch that comes to mind. For in the shadowy corners formed by vine-draped walls, and on the lushly carpeted floors of the pavilions, I see tiny beings—not people, no, not with those swollen heads, sharp-taloned limbs and tooth-lined maws— engaged in the most perverse couplings imaginable. Here an enormous penis splits a dripping orifice. There, a long, tri-forked tongue penetrates multiple bodies simultaneously. A fat-assed creature squats and strains above a gaping mouth. A head literally disappears between splayed female thighs while smaller beings perch on the woman's abdomen to gnaw on her pendulous breasts.

My stomach turns. My cunt melts. Both reactions are completely inappropriate in a therapist. I swallow the disgust rising in my throat, ignore the desire smoldering in my sex, and hand the sheet back to Alisha.

~ From “Countertransference” by Lisabet Sarai, unpublished work

Let’s strip out the adverbs:

Would you like to see my drawing, Dr. Gardner?” Alisha offers me a sheet of paper, presumably the picture that captured her attention yesterday. Color explodes off the page, garnet red, cerulean blue, bright purple. In contrast with its violent hues, the lines of the drawing are delicate and precise. Rendered gardens and palaces fill the every inch of the paper—arched gates curtained with ivy, marble fountains spilling silvery cascades over velvet green lawns, onion-domed towers soaring toward feathery clouds. I'm reminded of the jewel-toned miniatures painted by the eighteenth century Ottoman masters, until I look more. Then it is Hieronymous Bosch that comes to mind. For in the shadowy corners formed by vine-draped walls, and on the carpeted floors of the pavilions, I see tiny beings—not people, no, not with those swollen heads, sharp-taloned limbs and tooth-lined maws— engaged in the most perverse couplings imaginable. Here an enormous penis splits a dripping orifice. There, a long, tri-forked tongue penetrates multiple bodies. A fat-assed creature squats and strains above a gaping mouth. A head disappears between splayed female thighs while smaller beings perch on the woman's abdomen to gnaw on her pendulous breasts.

My stomach turns. My cunt melts. Both reactions are inappropriate in a therapist. I swallow the disgust rising in my throat, ignore the desire smoldering in my sex, and hand the sheet back to Alisha.

In my opinion, this snippet is less dynamic than the original. It feels flat. I use adverbs for emphasis here, and to convey nuances of excess. I also intend to convey the fact that the narrator (who is a highly educated psychiatrist) is a highly verbal person who uses words both to comprehend the world and to distance herself from her own feelings.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Each of us uses our tools in different ways. You may strive for the lean, muscular prose of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard and personally eschew adverbs as unnecessary ornamentation.

Do not presume, however, to banish them outright. I want them in my tool box, along with all the other delightful and varied structures in the English language.

And don’t get me started about the universally condemned passive voice!


3 comments:

Cecilia Tan said...

When I was a young editor working with many amateur writers, I found that almost universally I could advise them to replace the adverbs with something better ("touched softly" would be better as "caressed" and both would be better than "caressed softly," which was what was usually there). What I find now, 25 years later, is that the experienced writers know the difference between using an adverb as a bit of grease in the wheels of the prose and using them to make absolutely, positively sure that every bit of meaning is being communicated aggressively and clearly to the reader. :-) I encourage writers to use them now in their first drafts, but when revising to weigh them carefully. Sometimes the adverb is almost there as a cue or a metatextual explanation to the writer about what they meant, that once the paragraph, scene, or chapter has gelled, they no longer need to rely on. The polishing stage tends to remove the extraneous ones, leaving only the ones that actually burnish the remaining words. Sometimes a little grease in the wheels of English is necessary.

Lisabet Sarai said...

You're right, Cecilia.

If this story gets accepted, perhaps I'll take some of them out. ;^)

However, my main point still stands -- there's no such thing as an evil part of speech.

Raine Balkera said...

Have to agree here! Words are our sustenance, all of them, and used correctly and eloquently, can only make us better at our craft. I listen to others, but I don't necessarily obey all. Never was a trendy person.

Post a Comment