Wright’s Writing Corner: The Adverb Is Dead. Long Live the Adverb.

Guest Blog this week: the charming Charles Grey weighs in for the Heming Way: 

The best new piece of advice on writing I know of comes from William Goldman via David Morrell’s book Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing.  The whole book is invaluable – it’s the only one I’ve read all the way through and then immediately flipped back to chapter one and read again – but this particular bit is a $20,000 lotto ticket.  In the chapter on structure, Morrell says something to the effect that if the pace of a chapter seems to be lagging, go back and chop off the beginning.  Probably the last paragraph, too.  So just for fun, a couple of weeks ago I opened up an unsuccessful piece of fiction from a few years back and did the necessary surgery.  Instant improvement.

 But does this apply to writing anything more than thrillers?  Are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules likewise only good for people who want to write like Elmore Leonard?  Just what the hell is wrong with adverbs, anyway?

 Goldman, Leonard, and Morrell’s advice is all about eliminating the unnecessary, and so are Leonard’s rules.  The ten rules are an essential starting place, no matter what sort of prose you want to master in the end.  Just like the rules of grammar, you have to understand them and use them before you can break them.  So learn them.  Write without adverbs.  Eliminate all speech tags except for "said.” (Maybe there’s a special dispensation for "asked.")  Streamline description.  Write short declarative sentences.  These are all a means to an end.  That end is clarity, and clarity is essential to all writing.

Bad writing, fuzzy and dull writing, comes from laziness.  Laziness tempts you to reach for the first word that comes to mind instead of making yourself strain your authorial muscles to hammer out the perfect phrase.  Adverbs indicate lazy writing.  Adverbs are deadly because they attach themselves like lampreys to commonplace verbs, and suck the life out of the search for powerful, precise verbs. Likewise with attention-getting speech tags, which take the place of dialog that is true to the way people really talk.


Now, it would be a dull world if everyone sounded like Leonard or Hemmingway and all we turned out was screenplays. (I wish I could remember who said, "Read all the Hemingway you can get your hands on to get the Faulkner out of your system. Then read all the Faulkner you can to get rid of the Hemingway.") I’ll repeat myself: the rules are only a tool.  Use the rules until they become habitual.  Once that happens, you’ll have the awareness and judgment you need to begin using the forbidden items again.  The difference will be that then you’ll be able to use them where they’ll add to your prose instead of weakening it.  (Myself, I still wouldn’t ever begin a story with the weather, but maybe you could make it work.)  If you can turn out prose that’s as lean and stripped as a skinned rabbit, you also know what to do when it’s time to start putting the flourishes back in.  Once adverbs and the like become tools instead of crutches, you can build the most elaborate cathedral of words that you like.  But this time your cathedral will be precise and sunlit in its detail, and not a shapeless grey mass whose complexities only serve to confuse.

Here are some examples of clear writing.  First up, a bit from the beginning of a Robert E. Howard story.  Howard is no Pulitzer winner, but the man knew how to turn out vivid prose. 

The oliphants sounded a fanfare of triumph all over the plain, and the hooves of the victors crunched in the breasts of the vanquished as all the struggling, shining lines converged inward like the spokes of a glittering wheel to the spot where the last survivor still waged unequal strife.

 That day Conan, King of Aquilonia, had seen the pick of his chivalry cut to pieces, smashed and hammered to bits, and swept into eternity.  With five thousand knights he had crossed the south-eastern border of Aquilonia and ridden into the grassy meadowlands of Ophir, to find his former ally, King Amalrus of Ophir, drawn up against him with the hosts of Strabonus, King of Koth.  Too late he had seen the trap.  All that a man might do he had done with his five thousand cavalrymen against thirty thousand knights, archers and spearmen of the conspirators.

This is pure genre fiction, and genre fiction is a place where bad writing breeds monsters.  But notice how sparing Howard is with his adjectives.  He uses no adverbs at all.  The verbs and nouns are doing all the work.  Howard’s prose plunges us into the battle without the words getting in the way.

Next up is the opening paragraph from A Simple Plan by Scott Smith.  We’re still in the country of genre fiction, but on the frontier where we can see the land of “literature” just over the hills. 

My parents died in an automobile accident the year after I was married.  They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle.  My father was killed instantly, decapitated by the hood of his car, but my mother, miraculously, survived.  She lived for a day and a half more, hooked up to machines in the Delphia Municipal Hospital, her neck and back broken, her heart leaking blood into her chest.

 The adjectives are almost invisible here, mostly just adjectival nouns.  The prose is indeed stripped clean, Leonard-style.  But we get a substantial amount of information in just three sentences, and we’re immediately drawn into the story.  And look at this – not just one, but two of those forbidden adverbs in the middle sentence.  Here the adverbs are what the prose needs to evoke the fictive dream.  Scott knows exactly what he’s doing.

The last example comes from the hand of a master magician of writing, Franz Kafka.  The Castle opens like this: 

It was late in the evening when K arrived.  The village was deep in snow.  The castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there.  On a wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

These sentences are as unadorned as the start of a 100mph thriller, but despite their simplicity, we stop to savor them, drawn in effortlessly into Kafka’s fictive dream.  (I love how Word wants me to correct the passive voice in the third sentence.)  Not many of us have the power to do what Kafka can do, but this shows that stripped down writing is still capable of creating a masterpiece.

Now I must go back and clean up some subordinate clauses and bring forth better verbs.