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Delanceyplace: Stephen King - On Writing

In his book, On Writing, prolific fiction writer Stephen King argues for simplicity in writing. Here he attacks the adverb.

The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox in this: The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs, you will remember, ... are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They're the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. ... With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It's by no means a terrible sentence (at least it's got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you'll get no argument from me . . . but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn't this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn't firmly an extra word? Isn't it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's-GASP!!-too late.

I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. 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. Just to make sure we all know what we're talking about, examine these three sentences:

"Put it down!" she shouted.
"Give it back," he pleaded, "it's mine."
"Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

"Put it down!" she shouted menacingly.
"Give it back," he pleaded abjectly, "it's mine."
"Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemp­tuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. "Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemptu­ously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliche, while the other two are actively ludicrous. Such dialogue attributions are sometimes known as 'Swifties,' after Tom Swift, the brave inventor-hero in a series of boys' adventure novels written by Victor Appleton II. Appleton was fond of such sentences as "Do your worst!" Tom cried bravely and "My father helped with the equations," Tom said modestly. When I was a teenager there was a party-game based on one's ability to create witty (or half-witty) Swifties. "You got a nice butt, lady," he said cheekily is one I remember; another is "I'm the plumber," he said, with a flush. (In this case the mod­ifier is an adverbial phrase.) ...

Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:

"Put down the gun, Utterson!" Jekyll grated.
"Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped.
"You damned tease!" Bill jerked out.

Don't do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.

Author: Stephen King
Title: On Writing
Publisher: Scribner
Date: Copyright 2000 by Stephen King
Pages: 124-127


On Writing
by Stephen King by Pocket Books
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