Journal Entry

Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Adverbs

‎"The road to Hell is paved with adverbs." Stephen King

King is right, as far as it goes. But a fellow on Facebook who quoted that quote, went on to claim that adverbs were just bad writing, always. And if you know me at all, gentle reader, you know how that kind of thing gets my dander up, and predictably generates a rant in defense of the adverb:

Here's the thing: "don't use adverbs" -- like "show don't tell", or "start in the middle of the action", or "don't mix science fiction and fantasy in the same story", or "the protagonist must PROTAG", or "your main character must be sympathetic" or "don't change points of view in the middle of a scene" -- is a rule-of-thumb which contains plenty of truth. Adverbs do, as a rule, especially if clumsily used, weaken prose. Removing them, ninety-five times out of a hundred, strengthens a sentence. If your goal is to avoid the dangerous peaks and swamps of literary ambition, and produce adequate, salable, unobjectionable work, then by all means, follow all those rules.

But the thing is that if everyone follows all those good sensible rules-of-thumb all the time, what we get is a very safe, boring, toothless literary culture. If everyone follows "show don't tell" we have no more fairy tales. If everyone follows "start in the middle of the action" we have no more Great Expectations. If everyone follows "your protagonist must PROTAG" we never get Mansfield Park. If everyone follows "your main character must be sympathetic" we never get Crime and Punishment. If everyone follows "don't change POV in the middle of a scene" we get no more Mrs. Dalloway -- or, for that matter, Under the Dome.

King is not my favorite literary stylist, but he's occasionally masterful -- and when I say "masterful", what I mean is precisely that he often goes beyond these journeyman restrictions. In Under the Dome, he head-hops from one POV to another, sometimes multiple times in one paragraph. In the hands of a lesser writer that would have made a miserable hash of things, and pedantic adverb-hatin' teachers would undoubtedly have scribbled red all over the margins. But King's command of voice -- particularly the voice of the small-town Maine folks he describles -- is so great, that you are never in any doubt, for an instant, whose POV you're in, even if for only a sentence. That is mastery.

All these rules would be better phrased as observations. The real deal is not "show don't tell"; it's "telling distances, showing intensifies." Adverbs (of the kind you mean; "now" is after all also an adverb, but you don't mean that) also distance -- they replace a reader's owned, visceral conclusion about the motives or manner of action with a writerly assertion. That weakens the story. Except when it doesn't.

One good meta-rule-of-thumb is that an adverb which simply reiterates what the reader has already gathered from a text, tends to dilute her experience of that text; while an adverb that challenges, subverts, or surprises, adds to it.

Consider "'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished." Hamlet is talking about suicide -- a mortal sin. "Consummation" mixes in the flavor of another sin, lust. If he said "'tis a consummation sorely to be wished", or "hungrily", or "lustily", the adverb would just be hitting us over the head, while taking up space.

But "devoutly"! Suicide -- envisioned as sex -- is abruptly (see what I did there) not something lusted after, but something prayed for -- as if holy! The adverb reaches out and slaps you. That's one way to use adverbs well -- to destabilize, surprise, and subvert.

Or consider "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." What is the adverb doing there?

For one thing, it gives the arch, high tone (contrast "everyone knows that..."). But there is also a subtle irony in it: is it really universally acknowledged? That is, does the narrator acknowledge it? And, indeed, does Elizabeth Barret -- or will she distance herself -- or perhaps half-distance herself -- from the world's busybody rush to quickly marry off all the wealthy bachelors? Imagine how the bite of the sentence would vanish if "universally" was replaced with "generally" -- allowing the narrator a snide distance from the opinions of the masses, rather than ironically underline her ambivalence (Austen does, by the end of the book, marry off the wealthy bachelor!) Both Austen's, and Elizabeth's, ironic, complicit, skeptical-yet-beholden relationship to the marriage-and-property game rest on that well-chosen adverb. It's not an exaggeration to say that it's that adverb that makes this sentence one of the greatest opening gambits of any novel in the English language.

Posted by benrosen at June 30, 2011 04:15 PM | Up to blog
Comments

Ah, I think beginning writers simply mistake "advice for beginning writers" with "The Rules for Writing."

It really is wise for beginning writers to follow that advice, because they will tend to make a particular suite of mistakes, most of which can be avoided... but then for a long time afterward, we tend to forget out how to be READERS rather than critiquers, and our zeal for adverbial deletion becomes a hard and fast rule.

And sometimes, yes, you will catch a pro committing a classic newbie mistake. But mostly I think we newbies just don't realize that pro writers actually do know how to use adverbs and other "forbidden" devices correctly.

(I always desperately struggle with the urge to claim that I am an automaton selling aphrodisiacs. But then you will delete my comment, alas.)

Posted by: Jackie M. at July 2, 2011 11:30 AM

Perhaps it's because I have become so fond of Victorian writers, but I feel that the advice against adverbs is simply stylistic advice: write this way, not that way. Don't write like Charles Dickens or Walt Whitman, write like Ernest Hemingway or Saul Bellow. There are lots of ways to be a good writer, and invariably eliminating adverbs narrows the options.

On the other hand, it didn't occur to me that the advice was meant to be about a particular kind of adverb; that it is not about refusing to say that a particular thing happened slowly or yesterday but that a person spoke petulantly or snidely. This latter advice (particularly if addressed as think twice before…) seems like reasonably good advice, but then applies to the use of adjectives as well. Avoiding the adjective by rephrasing as in a willful manner isn't a plus—and while one would surmise that only a beginning writer would do such a thing, that takes away from the idea of it being useful advice from beginning writers.

In fact, while I do understand the necessity, I am skeptical of the idea that there is a set of Training Rules for Beginning Writers, and that at some point a writer gets Officially Certified for Rulebreaking. Phrasing them as observations about how these tools work avoids that somewhat, which I like.

Thanks,
-V.

Posted by: Vardibidian at July 2, 2011 03:00 PM

I took a grammar class in college, not to help my writing but to help my tutoring; there were too many times when I'd say "I feel like it should be this but I can't tell you why" and this was, to my mind, Unacceptable.

While it definitely helped my tutoring, I found that it helped my writing even more than I expected. That's because my professor presented everything as options: here are rules, or at least guidelines, and mostly you want to follow them, but once you've learned what they are and why they exist that way, you can choose when and how to break them. It made so much sense! It was so practical, so helpful!

I feel like adverbs are one of those things like first person narrators, where anybody can use them because they're easy, but in fact they're difficult to use well. And I like that idea of "think twice before" or "stop and think before" because it's not that you can't or shouldn't use adverbs (or first person narrators), but that ideally you should stop and think about why you are making that choice instead of a different one, and what (if anything) it adds to the story.

(I should say, I have nothing against first-person narrators--there are many of whom I am quite fond--but they have a lot of specific advantages and disadvantages that may not be obvious until you stop and think about how they function in a story. Or at least, I didn't really think about them until Alpha or whenever it was someone first pointed this out to me.)

Posted by: Emily Gilman at July 3, 2011 04:23 AM
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