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Stephen King vs. the Adverb

January 4, 2016
(image via Wikimedia)

(image via Wikimedia)

The adverb has an undeservedly bad reputation, I believe.  The adverb is a part of speech, so it has to have an important role in grammar and sentence structure.  I learned that in school.  Yet, famous authors often malign the adverb and say its usage hurts writing.  Stephen King has said: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,…”  When the Modern Master of Horror equates a kind of word with eternal damnation, you have to take that seriously.

I just finished reading On Writing by Stephen King.  It seems that every writer says that every writer should read it, so if I’m going to be a writer, I thought I’d better read it.  I’m not going to review the book because you can get a review of it anywhere.  I’ve criticized King recently about how sometimes he doesn’t follow his own writing advice, and he admits this in On Writing.

He also says that he notices too many adverbs in his early books.  He says his writing is much tighter now that he doesn’t use adverbs as much.

Maybe that’s true, but the thing is, I like his older books more than his newer stuff.  Last week, I read Joyland just to see if his newer, tighter writing made his book any better.  I didn’t count adverbs in the whole book.  I’m not that kind of blogger.  I have nothing against a blogger who reads an entire book counting adverbs.  That type of information and analysis might be interesting.  It’s too much work for me, though.  I read the book just to enjoy it.

Joyland was okay, but it felt like a bunch of other Stephen King books.  His protagonists tend to sound alike.  I felt like I had read sections of it before.  If this sounds like a review, I don’t mean it to.  I’m getting to a larger point.

I started reading The Shining again.  You can’t go wrong reading The Shining again.  It’s not one of my books to cure reader’s block, but it’s still good.  I noticed that Stephen King used a lot of –ly adverbs in The Shining.  Here are a few examples, all within a few pages of each other.

All of these sentences are towards the end of “Chapter Ten- Hallorann.”  The parenthesis are mine to show who/what the pronouns refer to:

“This time they all laughed, even Danny, although he was not completely sure what the joke was,…”

The word completely probably wasn’t necessary.  Then again, the word probably wasn’t necessary in my previous sentence either.

“It (the main room) had cleared greatly during the half hour they’d spent in the kitchen.”

The word greatly was unnecessary.

“The nuns who had been sitting by the fire were gone, and the fire itself was down to a bed of comfortably glowing coals.”

The word comfortably does describe the degree of glowing, but it might not have been the best adverb to use, and I’m not passionate enough to come up with a better one.

“He (Halloran) turned to the Torrances as she (Sally, a young maid) strolled away, backside twitching pertly.”

Okay, I didn’t make that up.  Stephen King actually wrote backside twitching pertly.   I may never become a successful writer, but I don’t think I have written a serious sentence that said anything like backside twitching pertly.

Stephen King says he cringes (or something like that) when he reads his older writing.  Maybe “backside twitching pertly” is cringe-worthy, but this was written in the 1970’s.  I think backsides twitched pertly back then.  I’m not sure what backsides do nowadays because I don’t usually write about backsides.  I think they sway a little bit.  I usually don’t write about situations where backsides twitch or sway.  Maybe it happens in real life, but I don’t write about that very often.

That’s okay.  The Shining is still The Shining, and I’ll think it’s great no matter what.


Thank you for reading this far.  If you liked this article about Stephen King and adverbs, you’ll probably enjoy these ebooks on Amazon.  They don’t cost much, and they help to keep the blog going.    Thanks again!

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  1. When I read On Writing, I was a little put off by his hatred of adverbs. I compromised and decided that, to be the writer I wanted to be, I would use adverbs, but only when necessary.

    Great post! Glad I’m not the only advocate for the adverb.

  2. Reblogged this on Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine and commented:
    Nice, enjoyable article about the lack of need for adverbs.

  3. Am I the only one who hasn’t read On Writing and doesn’t actually (!) care that Stephen King says I should?

    • Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t read it either. And I don’t “care” what Stephen Kings says, but I was interested (if that makes any sense).

      Anyway, I don’t think you’re the only one. But I care what YOU think.

      • I suppose I think that style should be individual. As long as you develop a style that works with your subject matter and is true to you, then your readers will respond to it. But if you radically change the way you write because Stephen King says so, you are bound to come across as inauthentic.
        I’m watching Lie To Me right now on Netflix. The entire first season the main character, who is British, doesn’t say “love” once. In season two, he says it 50 times an episode. Clearly someone told the writers it was British to call people love. And they’ve vastly over done it. And it feels forced. And I almost dropped the show because of it.

  4. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel permalink

    Well, since there is not a single book in the whole world that is necesary, why would we have to discuss on parts of those books as being necesities or not? Oh, yeah, I know: because we love language. Yes, we do, but loving something doesn’t make it necessary, not even important. Going against adverbs is something one does when they don’t like adverbs or when they have heard other writers to go against adverbs. Defending adverbs is a way to deny one doesn’t pay enough attention to his own writing. Let’s stop justifying ourselves and star writing the book nobody else is going to write, adverbs or no adverbs. They won’t make a book turn bad, as the lack of adverbs won’t make a book shine. Stephen King’s books are the proof. They are just fine, not a single masterwork. Adverbs full as well as adverb free.

    • “Let’s stop justifying ourselves and start writing the book nobody else is going to write, adverbs or no adverbs.”-

      That’s great! I agree with you. Now if Stephen King would just stop complaining about adverbs, I’d drop the subject too… Haha!

  5. I agree with your argument. Though I’ve seen in my experience (embracing the same rules King used in his On Writing book) I’ve still made an effort to eliminate unnecessary adverbs and change the sentences to make the same statement without that adverb, to give the same effect, only in a better descriptive manner, if that makes sense. 😊

  6. Backsides… I think they give you a lot of pain if you spent hours writing on your desk. 😀 Funny post Sarah! Anne Rice said recently she didn’t mind using adverbs. I use them freely. (I did it here!) To me the flow of story matters, nothing else.

  7. Damn it! What was I thinking? Sorry for wrong name. 😦

  8. I like Stephen King’s stories, I’ve read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, and I like adverbs. I think they help the reader to know a character, especially when they are used as part of the dialogue.
    You’re right about The Shining too, a re-read is always worthwhile.

  9. I have not read a Stephen King novel since the final installment of “The Dark Tower” series. He made me mad with how he ended it.

    • How did he end it? I probably shouldn’t ask, but I know I’ll never read it, but then again, somebody else reading the comments might be reading it. I guess I can look it up and not risk spoiling the ending for anybody.

  10. Besides On Writing, no need to use King as an exemplar of writing, really. The thing with adverbs mostly is that they’re bad shortcuts where instead a writer needs basically orchestrate the thoughts or movements being zipped through. A lot is going on in the one word space of “suddenly.” Anger or fear or joy and someone’s chest must be rising and falling when someone is breathing “heavily.” These, sure, they get the job done, but they’re lazy and quick ways through it. Count your change, fidget in your pocket, pull out your ex-girlfriend’s scrunchy, miss the toll basket when you throw the heap of coins in. Don’t just use the EZ-Pass and drive through quickly.

  11. The trouble with adverbs and adjectives is they modify, try to establish a degree of a verb or a noun. They are common and necessary in languages with declensions and absurd conjunctions. But English has such a vast vocabulary, and it is set up to be understood by anyone with an ounce of logic, that it is infrequent that a writer can not choose the correct word (verb, noun) not its second cousin, which needs modifying.

  12. Yes, King deserves to talk about writing because of his peerless prolificacy. But his work is not the untouchable canon of a literary genius; it is a gushing torrent of tales, some of which did better than others.

    However, it seems the writing community sees a man who has likely written more books than he’s read and assumes he must be a master. He’s a storyteller, yes, and he’s sold more books than I’ve written words in my entire life, but a master of prose? I’m yet to be convinced.

    Take this example from King’s short story The Mist:

    “One of the spiders had come out from the mist behind us. It was the size of a big dog. It was black with yellow piping. Racing stripes, I thought crazily.”

    I picked this quote out for a review I wrote of Skeleton Crew (with your permission I’ll link to it here in the comments) because of his use of that final jarring adverb: “crazily”. It’s included, seemingly, because his description of the spider is so rushed and vague that he resorts to likening it to both a car and a dog. “I thought crazily” relinquishes responsibility over the simile to the unreliable (and unimaginative) narrator.

    But reading that small extract, there are a number of other elements we could criticise, like the apparent lack of vocabulary. If we follow Jefferson’s advice to “never use two words when one will do”, mightn’t we change “had come out” to “emerged”, or “crawled”? Should we edit “a big dog” to “a wolf”?

    How about joining the two disparate descriptions? The repetition of “It was” is clunky and awkward. Why not join the two? “It was the size of a wolf; black with yellow piping” works better, does it not?

    And are we not persistently reminded that Deep POV does not require filter words, like “felt”, “saw” or “thought”? We know who is thinking, so let’s cut out the “thought” and its associated adverb. We can imply the thought is a peculiar one – if we want to keep the car simile at all – using a question mark, rather than those three words: “he thought crazily”. Hell, stick it in italics for good measure!

    The result is quicker, more evocative and lays the foundation for an insidious madness that might overcome the narrator:

    “One of the spiders emerged from the mist behind us. It was the size of a wolf; black with yellow piping. Racing stripes?

    My point is not to say I’m a better writer than King – I’m patently not – but to dispel the notion that King is anything more than a prolific – and often inventive – fiction factory. As successful as he has undoubtedly been, my point is we need not hold so much stock in the man’s writing advice.

    Great blog by the way. You’ve a new follower.

  13. Ms Cheo permalink

    Why did the Harry Potter’s series sell by hundreds of millions? (and probably still selling well.)

    It’s fun to read and it is vivid…because it is peppered with -ly adverbs lavishly (oops!). Below is a list of -ly I located on the first page of the first chapter of each of the seven e-books I have.

    HP1: … perfectly … hardly … nearly … happily …

    HP2: …said Uncle Vernon heartily … said Harry irritably … said Harry quickly.

    HP3: … highly … really … nearly … Completely … likely … commonly … particularly … Slowly … carefully … only …

    HP4: … easily … plainly … apparently … dramatically … suddenly …

    HP5: … usually … slightly … only … loudly … suddenly … said Aunt Petunia unconcernedly…. he said scathingly … really …

    HP6: … clearly … only … peculiarly … barely … unfortunately …perfectly … really … mournfully … firmly …

    HP7: … briskly … neatly … majestically … visibly

    Why disadvantage yourself using three tools when you have four. Noun, Verb, Adjective and Adverb.

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