Sunday, July 05, 2009

“Morality,” Exposition, & Adverbs

Not long ago, I read through the July, 2009, issue of Esquire. In it, there is a new short story called “Morality” by Stephen King, which is available in its entirety here. This story evoked a few thoughts about exposition and adverbs. Plus, this gives me the chance to post pictures of Bar Refaeli, because the words of King’s story were painted on her not-so-terribly-unpleasant body for the cover.

I don’t know why Script Mag doesn’t do covers like this. I’ve offered to pose nude, too, but Shelly seems reluctant. Hehehe


First, I’m going to praise King and then rip him a new one.

The story is very simple. You have a financially struggling young couple. The husband is an aspiring writer working part-time as a substitute teacher. The wife is a nurse to a retired and wealthy priest, who decides that he wants to do something really really bad before he dies. He propositions the nurse to do this on his behalf for $200,000.


Here's a classic example of good exposition. King never tells you what the proposition is. We know it’s really bad. We know it involves blood. We know it has to be filmed so the priest can watch this dirty deed later in his mansion. And we know this moral question of “should we or shouldn’t we do this really bad thing” is tearing apart the young couple. So you’re hooked. You keep reading because you want to find out A) what the proposition is and B) if they’ll do it. But you will not learn any of these details until the time has come to carry out the dirty deed.

This is good exposition in a nutshell: it’s putting a question in the minds your readers and making them want to keep on reading to get the answer. A lot of amateurs, I suspect, would’ve given the game away early. They would've explained in full detail what the proposition is when it’s proposed, which not only makes the story less intriguing but it’s also risky because if the proposition’s not interesting or juicy enough, people will stop reading your story right then and there.

Essentially, just show instead of tell then show.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes you have to explain a plan beforehand, so that people know what’s supposed to happen and feel tension when that plan goes terribly wrong in the midst of its execution like in a
Jean-Pierre Melville film. Or, as in the case with Titanic, James Cameron wisely explains how the ship sinks before we see the ship sink so that we will understand what’s going on as the ship is sinking and can stay focused on the story.

But putting questions in the minds of the readers to make them want to keep reading even from scene-to-scene is an art form. I loved a point that Carol Phiniotis made in her column, “The Art of the Rewrite,” in the brand new
July/August issue of Script Magazine:

Scene transitions are often overlooked. A simple line of dialogue at a scene’s conclusion can greatly affect the flow of your story. In an early draft of American Beauty, a scene transition between Jane and her soon-to-be boyfriend Ricky played out as follows:

Come on, let’s go to my room.

By the shooting script, Ball revised the line:

You want to see the most
beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?

While the first transition is functional, it falls flat. However, the second transition not only engages Jane, it also engages the audience. We’re invited to participate in the mini-mystery Ricky has woven.

I whole-heartedly agree.

Although I’d stack this Bar Refaeli vid up against Ricky's fluttering plastic bag any day of the week. Hehehe


I place the blame for everyone’s hysteria about adverbs squarely on the shoulders of Stephen King. Remember what he wrote in
On Writing? “The adverb is not your friend.” “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” King was and is horrifically wrong about adverbs.

Of course, he backs up his opinion with Strunk & White’s
The Elements of Style, a book SO pre-digital age and revised only 4 times since 1918. About 50 years later, E.B. White wrote in The New Yorker, “I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” Even Strunk, the English professor, said, “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.”

WHAT? You can break the rules?

But King told us to follow the rules. You do not use adverbs, period. And every time I read an adverb in one of his stories, I want to stand on the rooftops and scream “HYPOCRITE!” The man is incapable of abiding by his own rules. This short story alone has over 100 adverbs. (Yes, we counted.) Consider these doozies:

With the hiring freeze currently in effect in the city's schools…


…but it would be a very small contract, likely a good deal less than you currently make as a teacher…

Would anyone argue that “currently” is essential in either sentence?

…the stroke had left him partially paralyzed on the right side…

Wouldn’t a hater of adverbs change that to “semi-paralyzed?”

She was also a masseuse and occasionally

Wouldn’t a hater of adverbs change that to “on occasion?”

…although Chad had had a relatively good few months teaching...

Couldn’t that sentence be rewritten to describe exactly how those months were good without having to resort to “relatively?”

It was the first time she had really thought of him in connection with money.

“Really?” Isn’t that the mother of all bad adverbs?

Deliberately planned and executed.

Aren’t most plans “deliberate?”

…she wrote simply: Savings.

Can’t we see for ourselves that what she wrote was simple?

And so on. Here’s the deal about adverbs. No one will complain about your adverb so long as it’s a good adverb. There is nothing wrong with an adverb so long as you’re not being redundant, like glitters brightly. Why say ran speedily when you can just say raced? Most people think of adverbs in terms of a word that reinforces the adjective: extremely gorgeous, really sensual, etc. Shoot me now, right?

But a good adverb can inject an air of freshness to those stale words: bitingly gorgeous, witheringly sensual.

In fact, I prefer adverbs that are almost contradictory to the words they’re supporting: delightfully hypocritical, engagingly demented, sporadically authoritative, and charmingly brutish.

Not long ago, I read a fabulous book,
Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik, a spirited argument against Strunk & White’s principles. He writes:

Arts reviewers (and blurbists) everywhere seem enamored of [adverbs], and little wonder; it offers an alternative to shopworn critical adjectives like brilliant, gripping, or plodding. It can also tweak such adjectives toward fresh meanings, as in yawningly brilliant.

These examples feature what grammarians call “adverbs of manner.” They reveal the way in which a thing or quality is distinguished. According to yet another New York Times critic, Allesandra Stanley, a new television show was “deliciously horrifying,” distinguishing it from other modes of horrifyingness. Writers also toy with so-called adverbs of degree, which answer the question “how much”? Performances are routinely described as “hugely boring” or “minutely entertaining.”

When a term and its modifier seem paradoxical, like horrifying and deliciously, they form the rhetorical device known as the oxymoron. Oxymorons can produce any number of effects: sarcasm, incisiveness, archness (i.e., roguishness, sauciness). But not all adverbial zingers employ the incongruity of terms in contrast. Many reach for metaphor, as in lashingly funny, or hyperbole (exaggeration), as in woundingly beautiful. In addition, critics often find –ly forms suited to the put-down. Slate’s Gary Lutz called the grammar chapter of the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style “perversely unhelpful” – though I deviantly disagree.

Plotnik had other examples I enjoyed like dormantly Mormon. (Why write 20 words to avoid an adverb when dormantly Mormon will work just fine?) Other examples: gloriously uproarious, scarily fervent, militantly prosaic, incongruously ordinary, juicily ridiculous, resolutely unclever, wittily intricate, inflammatorily hostile, and metaphysically naïve. Consider, too, all the adverbs in
15,000 Useful Phrases.

So now we’ve come full circle back to Bar Refaeli. I couldn’t help but smile at the use of adverbs in
Ross McCammon’s article on the Israeli model. As he’s observing the words of King’s short story getting applied to her body by an “application professional,” he writes:

She is wearing white bikini bottoms and a red bikini top, which is pulled up, revealing the bottom third of her breasts. The skin there is white. She reads a novel in Hebrew. She doesn't talk. She doesn't move. Without her clothes on, she looks 10 percent larger. She is thin, of course, and her stomach is impossibly taut. But she has grown somehow. Maybe it's the clivvage.

She's become inaccessibly exquisite.




Sonic Charmer said...

If King said one should never use adverbs, he was obviously just wrong or (more likely) hyperbolizing for effect. I like your defense of the adverb although I still find his advice a wise and needed corrective. Let's face it, between 'too few adverbs' and 'too many adverbs' most writers fall in the latter category.

p.s. You probably know this but "friendly" in the phrase "friendly creep" is not an adverb.

Mystery Man said...

Sonic - Thanks so much for that! In other words, good adverbs should be "sparingly used?"


Joshua James said...

I believe in confessed to giving in to a juicy adverb now and again, in his book.

But I'm still thankful, simply because he made me think about adverbs and that's sort of the point ... specifically, adverbs are toys with pointy edges and must be played with appropriately.

I went from not using them to employing them sparingly ... except, of course, in my comment on this post - LOL!

Joshua James said...

I meant to write "King in ONE WRITING" right before "confessed.

Oops. In a hurry, heheh.

Joshua James said...


My keyboard feels abused this days, I pound it so much.

Mystery Man said...

JJ - that made me laugh out loud.

Maybe the thing that bothers me most about King's book is that he's so negative about adverbs as opposed to saying, "just avoid redundancy. Be creative. Give your adjectives an interesting spin."


David Alan said...

Okay, so what are the rules on cursing in action lines? My friend didn't care for it when he read the first 10 pages of my latest script. See, I tend to get mouthy when I get excited...and yeah, it tends to bleed through my writing at times...

Is it one of those moderation things? I normally try to only use it to emphasize something or someone.

terraling said...

"adverbly" is my new placeholder for when I'm writing in a hurry and a word escapes me and I have usually put [xxx] up until now before going back to it.


Joshua James said...

You know who LOVES adverbs?

Pat Conroy.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused, MM. You seem to be both criticizing King's use of adverbs in his short story, and his objection to adverbs in On Writing.

Also, Sonic is right; King advised looking at each and every adverb closely, not to eliminate them all.

On a side note, why does anybody object to adverbs? Everything that can be said about adverbs can be said about adjectives (apart from their grammatical function, of course).

Christian H. said...

Though I'm not abjectly disagreeable, my ideas notably differ from his.

I've actually been looking for something that works for me in description.

I believe this is my remarkably overlooked construct.

As I sit here trying to think of them, I get overwhelmingly excited.

With such a diverse plethora of vocabulary, I think this will markedly improve certain aspects of my writing.

Wow, this is fun. No wonder I don't think I'll ever stop studying cinema and its myriad complexities.

I think I'll stop now.

bob said...

I'm sorry, I was too busy staring at Bar Rafaeli. What was this article about again?? oh, adjectives??

They're part of the language, use them if it helps your meaning.

James said...

King's point was to strike all adverbs you can replace with a stronger verb.

He even says in ON WRITING that he doesn't replace all adverbs. He tries to eliminate them all -- but alas, some just have to stay.

His point was to find stronger verbs. Make stronger sentences.

CJ Alexander said...

I sympathize with MM's reaction; King's condemnation of adverbs in "On Writing" was so strident that, after reading it, adverbs began to stick out (for me) like speed bumps. I re-checked that section recently and was surprised to see that it was a little more narrowly targeted than I had remembered; his harshest tone is reserved for adverbs pinned to dialog descriptions. Stuff like:

"I guess I read that the wrong way," he said lamely.

I've since taken King's advice to more generally mean: don't festoon each line of dialog with an adverb when simply "s/he said" will suffice.

And of course, that's primarily advice for authors writing fictional story prose, not for screenwriters working within the highly structured format of a screenplay.


Dave Shepherd said...

If he'd taken a more moderate stance, the rule would've been lost.

If he'd said "Try not to use adverbs, but if you have to, use them" -- very few people would remember that. If they don't remember it, they don't reply it. It's a lot easier to remember absolutes -- and it causes you to question every instance which violates the rule.

Rules are made for beginners to learn. Once you've become more advanced, you can break them at your leisure.

The important thing to know is why the rule is there, what it's designed to enforce or prevent. With King's adverb rule, it's designed to prevent redundancy, so we don't have a whole generation of this:

"Shhh..." Joe whispered quietly.

Jane quickly darted between people.

Crap like that.

Mickey Lee said...

No way, King wrote a short story where the protagonist was a writer? Get out of here!

Jdarko said...

Excellent article!

Mystery Man said...

David – I’d keep it at a PG-level of cursing. I hate when writers say “buttocks” in an action line. Sometimes “ass” is the right word.

Terra – Hehehe…

JJ – Hehehe…

Anon – I’m just criticizing the fact that he can’t abide by his own rules. His usage of adverbs (by his own standards) are pointless. But I love adverbs… when they’re fresh and creative. I’ve read, too, in coverage for scripts or reviews on TriggerStreet, people criticizing the use of adverbs and saying that they should not be used at all in scripts. It’s like any other form of writing – use GOOD adverbs.

Christian – Hehehe…

Bob – I say use them to create something fresh and new!

James – Funny, using strong adverbs is my point, too, but I’m not a hater like he is.

CJ – Great comments. Even King used an adverb in dialogue in the short “he said shyly.” I thought, “are you kidding me?”

Dave – Adverbs is like any other form of writing. Encourage the good, discourage the bad. I don’t think he even knew how a good adverb worked when he wrote that book.

Mickey – Hehehe… Hope you’re doing well, my friend.

Jdarko – Thanks!

Arthur Plotnik said...

Thanks for the kind words about my book, SPUNK & BITE, and the riff on adverbs. I enjoyed the postings, too, underscoring the rule of moderation. The trouble is, our common adjectives just can't get off the couch without an intensifier---something stronger than "incredibly" or "unbelievably." So writers get inventive, as in David Foster Wallace's "The tea was kneebucklingly sweet." You can picture and feel the sweetness. But too many kneebuckling adverbs, and it's cringe city.
Best wishes, Art Plotnik

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Art! So very nice to meet you!


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JJ Beazley said...

Thank you. I get seriously (!!!) pissed off with silly small press editors who refuse even to consider a ms that contains an adverb. I hadn't realised King was the villain.

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