Saturday, August 29, 2015

Adverbs Do Please King not Greatly

You gotta love Stephen King's advice to writers. It is second to none, and he's such a good storyteller and has written so much that I'll trust his advice over that of any theoretician like Harold Bloom (who criticised the National Book Foundation for giving the award to King), and famously failed to execute his own ideal model of the book. That's not to say sensitive theoreticians don't have good writing advice to give - witness John Gardner - it's just that the inside track has the uncanny ability to draw us closer to the source.

Brainpickings recently highlighted King's advice on adverbs. In short, don't use them. They are generally timid, with few opportunities for redemption.
"Adverbs … 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."

He goes on to provide convincing examples that demonstrate why they are so frequently redundant.

This got me thinking. The first line of William Blake's "The Tyger" goes "Tyger Tyger, burning bright", which ends in an adverb. And I can't really imagine that line without it. The adverb bright, even more so than the verb burning, is what sets the brain on fire.

"The Tyger" is a poem of course, and Stephen King writes novels. Long novels, most of the time. There is plenty of space to create context, to slither in the emotion and let the action grab its tail and shake it. A shortish poem, on the other hand, needs all the leverage it can get. Adjectives and adverbs - they're all context.

But that's not the full story. There is the poetic device of alliteration, and also the rhythm: "brightly" vs. "bright". Why did Blake use "bright" and not "brightly"? Well, for one, it wouldn't exactly rhyme with night, now would it? For another, as a convention masculine rhyme is simply the more common. Way more common. Yet it is also true that "bright" sets the tone of heightened action that reverberates throughout the poem. "Brightly", a feminine rhyme, just won't cut it.

This made me wonder whether King would agree that an adverb with a masculine rhythm has a more pronounced effect that could dispel timidity. On the other hand, if it's not needed, why bother at all?

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