Revising Leah

December 4, 2008

Of Adverbs, Dialogue, and Vampires

I’m always loath to speak ill of another author because I know there is much in my own writing that might cause others to speak ill of me. In the case of YA author Stephenie Meyer, however, here is an author who has made so much money and has so many more readers than I will ever have that I think any negative criticism I might cast her way would be like spitting into the wind. Here in America, pop culture has been all abuzz over the movie based on her first novel, Twilight. Although I don’t plan to see the movie (it doesn’t look like anything I’d want to watch), it’s hard to avoid the media hype. Online and off, I’ve been exposed to news stories about Twilight, and I frequently encounter snippets of Meyer’s writing. I was bothered by something that I kept seeing in what I was reading, so out of curiosity, I acquired a copy of the novel’s text (umm, at the library — yeah, that’s it, I got the book at the “library”).

What I’ve noticed is the frequency of Meyer’s use of adverbs when the narrator describes characters’ dialogue. Here’s a sampling of what I’m seeing; I think the problem is clear:

“I’m not a good hiker,” I answered dully.

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll just assume it’s something much worse than it is,” he threatened darkly.

“Three,” she answered tersely.

“What are you going to do in Phoenix?” he asked her scathingly.

“Do you have room for a few more players?” Laurent asked sociably.

“Excuse me,” she said brusquely to Edward. [“Brusquely“?! Really?]

Now, Meyer doesn’t abuse adverbs in this way all the time, but she does it often enough that it’s noticeable. If you turned it into a game in which you ate a gummy bear after each time you saw an adverb following a line of dialogue, you’d be sick and puking before you finished a chapter.

One thing that I’ve learned over the last year and a half is that when it comes to describing a character’s dialogue, it’s the verb, not the adverb, that makes all the difference. In the second example above, “he threatened darkly”, “threatened” is a perfectly fine verb all by itself. Adding “darkly” seems unnecessary and redundant (when was the last time you were threatened cheerfully?). Less interesting verbs like “said,” “asked,” or “answered” might need some adverbial accompaniment, but I think writers ought to follow Stephen King’s famous advice on this subject and use adverbs sparingly:

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.

I prefer to try to use the verbs themselves to convey the feeling, tone, or mood behind a character’s utterance. Of course, sometimes simple, old “said” is the best word for the job, but if it’s not, it isn’t as if there’s a shortage of replacement words to use instead of “said.” Just Google “synonyms for said” and be amazed at the long lists of words that are available to a writer. In fact, I think it’s fun to try to find just the right word to describe how your character is speaking.

Here’s a couple of examples from my own work. The first is from The Spring:

“Wait a minute!” Rachel said, her voice desperate. “What are you going to do? What are we going to do?”

Trey growled, “I can tell you what we’re gonna do. You are gonna go to college, and I am gonna stay here.”

And here’s an example from my current project:

Anytime she spoke it was a big deal for her, so when the coach reached the names beginning with the letter M, Leah took a deep breath and held it until her name was called.

“Nells?”

“Here!” Leah chirped.

In these examples I used the verbs “growled” and “chirped”. “Growled” is the perfect word because that’s exactly what Trey does in this scene. He’s angry, he’s not in the mood to talk to Rachel, and he’s on the verge of losing control over his anger and becoming like an animal. I like “chirped” because I think it perfectly describes what Leah’s voice sounds like as she tries to answer the roll call in the big gymnasium. No adverbs were needed in these two instances because I chose the right verbs.

Of course, King and other writers also warn against using colorful verbs like “growled” and “chirped” too often in dialogue attribution. Indeed, a word like “chirped” is a word that I can get away with using only once in my entire novel. (“Growled”? Maybe twice.) Any more than that and evocative words like these will lose their force, as I’ve noted before.

To be fair, Meyer sometimes chooses the right verb too, but just as often she seems to rely on her adverbs to do the work for her. Perhaps she would have been better served by another round of revision?

September 1, 2008

Speak Softly and Carry a Red Pen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:38 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One of the advantages of reading a text over and over again as I’m doing with this project is that it allows me to see patterns in the text that I would otherwise probably miss. One type of pattern that I look for when revising a piece of writing is whether I am repeating a particular word too many times.

In the third cycle of revision I noticed that I used the word “softly” to describe Leah’s manner of speaking at least four times throughout the course of the novel. For example, it appears in this exchange with Mrs. Nells:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No,” she said, softly.

Now, using a word four times within the scope of an 85,000 word novel to describe how a main character speaks probably wouldn’t be a big deal if that character had a lot of dialogue. But Leah rarely speaks at all in the story (out of curiosity, I’ve been trying to count the number of words that she speaks, but I haven’t got a total word count yet), so when she does speak, it’s a big event. Those four uses of the word “softly” represent a high percentage of the word’s use.

Since I’ve begun noticing the word’s frequent use, the correction that I’ve made in each case has simply been to delete everything outside of the quotation marks, thusly:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No.”

I realized that I don’t need the adverb “softly” to describe how Leah speaks because elsewhere in the text I tell show the reader that Leah doesn’t have a very strong voice, and that when she does speak it tends to be in whispers and mumbles (her Egypt presentation is one of the best examples of this). So when she simply says “No” to her mother’s [relatively] lengthy question and anecdote, it is possibly the best revision choice that I could make. That one little word, only two letters long, without the narrator explaining that “she said,” takes up almost no space on the page, just like the rest of her dialogue takes up very little space in the context of the entire novel. It’s simple; it’s elegant; it’s efficient.

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