Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It Happens Along The Way...

I'm trying to be respectful. There are times when I read published authors and ask: How did he/she get away with that? Yet, they have published novels, and I do not. So, tread lightly, I say to that hyper-critical reader within me.

Here's a case in point: Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading The Stand by Stephen King. Right from the jump, I noticed something peculiar.

“Why are you shouting?” she asked softly.

“Because you seem determined to aggravate me as much as you can,” Jess said hotly.

“I guess not,” he said gloomily…

“You don’t love me,” he said sulkily

“Accepted,” she said colorlessly.

As I read those lines, I couldn't help but remember King’s fist-pounding statement found in his book On Writing:

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. – From the “Toolbox” section, Chapter 3

The dialogue attribution examples above all happened within two pages. What is more, they are not isolated events. I am now four hundred pages into this book, and I have discovered that King didn’t wake up that morning with a bad headache or a touch of the flu. (Pun intended) His use of adverbs in dialogue attribution has been a reoccurring issue throughout the book so far. As a writer, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if these two pages were submitted to a writing forum today, and if his name were not Stephen King. My guess is that today’s forumites would crucify it and then build a fire around it, send it up to the writing gods in a swirling cloud of ashes.

To be fair to Stephen King, I will include the following passage from On Writing:

Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the passive tense, but I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution. (I have never fallen so low as “he grated” or “Bill jerked out,” though.) When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.

At least he was honest about the past. Thinking back to recent readings of Lisey’s Story and The Dark Half (my favorite Stephen King book), I don’t remember him using adverbs in dialogue attribution. If he did, they weren’t to the degree I have seen in The Stand. And as far as not trusting the reader, I personally think the second example above didn't need the adverb when you consider that the two characters were involved in a spat. Furthermore, in the example I gave two postings ago (click here), it was clear that Frannie's words "I'm pregnant" were straightforward. Adding the dialogue attribution of "she said simply" was unnecessary, in my opinion.

The only way I can personally reconcile King’s two positions, then, is this: evolution. Good writers are constantly adapting. Early on, they moved about in their single-celled existence, penning such earth-shattering prose like: “I lov Moma.” And while that was an instant classic with at least one member of the family, the young writer was not satisfied with success. In truth, he never is. He moves on. He grows up. Each day, the world takes on new meaning, and slowly this child—now a man—builds his writing career brick-by-painstaking-brick like it were a house for the world to gaze upon with wonder. Only this is a house that will never be finished. The old door, once contemplated with a sense of warmth and admiration, now shows cracks. The paint is chipped. And where the sparkling brass knocker once hung, a dark shadow stains the wood like liver spots on an old man’s skin. The writer frowns. What did he ever see in that withered slab anyway? The moment passes, and then a new door swings on the hinges.

The Stand was published back in 1978, On Writing in 2000—a difference of twenty-two years. In that time, I believe King looked at the old door, grimaced, and then replaced it with something better.

So, what can we learn? The first is that we should avoid adverbs.

But it’s not enough to simply say don’t, is it? If I tell my son not to stick his hand in a bucket of fluid, he’s apt to do it—just because. However, if I tell my son that he'll be plunging his hand into a bucket of acid, which will burn his fingers off, he’ll look down, wiggle his fingers, and then quickly hide both hands behind her back.

So, why shouldn’t we use adverbs? Here is what two writers have to say:

Adverbs tempt the reader to think more about the way something is said than about what is actually said. – Tom Chiarella, Writing Dialogue

If you have to tell us how the words were spoken, then you haven’t done your job with the words. – John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells A Truth

The moment I read Dufresne’s words, they stuck. Even today, when I am writing dialogue, I ask the same questions: Can the reader see how the words are spoken by the words I have selected? Have I done my job as a writer? They are questions that plague me… in a good way.

The second thing we can learn is to review our work, even published work, with a critical eye. I recently went back to the published version of "The Hit." Now that a few months have passed, I can look at it and say: How did I ever get away with that? As writers, we need to constantly grow. Look at the old door, see if it needs to be replaced. Maybe it's time to repaint the soffits. Whatever the case may be, we should never be satisfied with success.

Finally, in response to King’s last sentence above, my advice is to stare fear in the face. And then kick it in the groin. If we’re afraid the readers won’t understand, then we should find other ways to write what we mean. And once we’ve found that better door, it’s time to pull the hands away and let it stand on its own. The world will only look upon our constructed house with awe and wonder when we, as writers, have done our jobs.


  1. Great post.
    I just finished a book that in almost the complete 1st half was nothing but information dump in fact I skipped over most of it and it turned out to be not important because I didn't go back to see who or how a relationship happened. The author's 2nd or 3rd book I think and have debated myself as to a blog review of it or not...and still debating

  2. When I was in high school we were encouraged to use adverbs to clarify what was happening, and told that adjectives helped the reader see what we were describing. Trends have definitely changed.


  3. Terrific post, Stephen. Especially interesting to me because I was just boring my husband with a version of this lesson on Monday as I held him hostage during a road trip home.

    Bottom line, the dialogue should say it all. Any added stuff needs to earn its spot on the page. Unless they're surprising and add something fresh, adverbs ought to be left out.

    But I'm sure I'll make a liar of myself with my very next story...

  4. Good post, Stephen. It is a rare writer who does not get better over time. Comparing old novels with new novels is a good learning exercise.