Rewind — Twilight: Actions speak louder than adverbs

This piece was originally posted on an earlier incarnation of this blog. Three years later, it’s still one of my most highly-trafficked posts.  Most recently, it got a mention in this excellent piece on teen dating and gender roles by Sean Hackett at The Good Men Project.

From July 2009

Unexpectedly, he was on his feet, bounding away, instantly out of sight, only to appear beneath the same tree as before, having circled the meadow in a half second.

“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed bitterly.

He reached up with one hand and, with a deafening crack, effortlessly ripped a two-foot-thick branch from the trunk of the spruce.

… I’d never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated facade. … His lovely eyes seemed to glow with rash excitement. Then, as the seconds passed, they dimmed. His expression slowly folded into a mask of ancient sadness.

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured, his velvet voice unintentionally seductive.

… He sat sinuously, with deliberately unhurried movements, till our faces were on the same level, just a foot apart.

— Excerpted from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, pages, 264-265

While camping last week I was sucked in to the Twilight book series. I’m a little slow on the uptake, but after reading the first book I see what all the hoo-rah is about. I was absorbed in the story, reading it in less than three days. But I was also irritated with the author’s writing conventions, as many word nerds are.

I’ve never been a best-selling author, so rather than write a snarky piece about Stephenie Meyer’s writing, I would like to channel my snarkery into a lesson on adverbs, which run rampant in Twilight.

First of all, what’s an adverb? The clearest answer I’ve found is in a cartoon called “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” I’m not kidding!

Key points from the Lollys:

  • An adjective is a word that adds description to nouns — people, places and things. (Example: I am a slow runner, even when I wear expensive sneakers.)
  • An adverb is also a descriptive word, but it has the power to describe or change verbs (action words), adjectives and even other adverbs. (Example: Very unexpectedly, he was on his feet.)
  • As the Lollys told us, adverbs are words that help answer the questions How?, Where? and When? They also help show conditions, reasons, comparisons and contrasts.
  • Often, but not always, adverbs in English end in -ly. (Examples: Neatly, sloppily, indubitably)
  • Adverbs that don’t end in -ly include very, quite and rather.

So why does it matter that Twilight is full of adverbs? Adverbs are useful, but too many can weaken a piece of  writing. As one of my professors hammered in college, if you’re depending on adverbs for description, it means your verbs don’t cut the mustard. Or that you might be burying verbs that would be perfectly effective on their own. Since a verb is an action word and an adverb is an add-on, an verb is often more powerful than an adverb.

Choosing effective verbs instead of relying on adverbs often means you’ll have clearer, more succinct sentences. And in many ways, brevity really is the soul of wit. If you’re using ten words when five would do the job, you’re not impressing anyone — you’re making it harder for readers to see your point.

Here’s my rough attempt at revising the previous Twilight passage, this time with the adverbs toned down and the verbs emphasized:

He jumped to his feet and disappeared, then reappeared beneath the tree, having circled the meadow in a half second.

“As if you could outrun me,” he laughed.

He reached for a two-foot-thick branch on the spruce and there came a deafening crack as he ripped it from the trunk.

… I’d never seen him so free of his facade. … But then his expression folded into a mask of ancient sadness.

“Don’t be afraid,” he murmured.

… With care, he inched toward me until we faced each other a foot apart.

OK, I have no idea if my revision is much better than the Twilight original. It’s still a teen vampire romance. But I will say this: The Twilight passage had 129 words. My version had 91 — about 30% less. In theory, this means the 498-page novel could be at least 150 pages shorter. But that’s another post altogether.

The point of the revision is to show how writing can change with an emphasis on verbs instead of adverbs. Why say that he “sat sinuously” when we already know he has rippling muscles? Why say he “effortlessly ripped” the branch from the tree? Clearly, a guy who can rip a branch from a tree is crazy-strong, no matter how much effort he puts into it.

I could go on and on about this, but I’ll end with a reminder: If you see adverbs pop up often in your writing, go back and identify each one, then see if you can replace it with a strong verb — a solid action word. In many ways, actions speak louder than adverbs.

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