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Bad Advice From Stephen King, Part 1

I wrote a novel as my St. Mary's Project when I was in college.  (A "St. Mary's Project" is basically SMCM's way of saying "independent study program.")  No real interesting story there - though I might blog about the novel, Norton Is Thinking, aka The Untitled, some other time.  I bring up my St. Mary's Project because, during the course of writing my novel, my Advisor / Mentor gave me a copy of Stephen King's On Writing to study.

Stephen King has some good advice throughout his book, I will admit.  I'm also well aware of the futility of a jackass with a blog speaking ill of a guy who has literally made more money than God with his fiction. But eight years and four novels later, I feel like I've had enough experience as a writer to call out some of King's advice as misleading, over-generalized, or just plain wrong.

I may or may not come back to this well to bitch again some other day, but for now I just want to discuss one very specific piece of his advice.  It's something that I've seen parroted on numerous other sites, including the NaNoWriMo Forums, where I feel it might be doing more harm than good:

"Don't use adverbs."

I think the underlying concept of this advice is strong - basically, that you should strive to Show, not Tell.  So instead of using an adverb as a crutch to get out of explaining a particular tone or emotion, you should try to use supporting detail and elaboration to get that tone across.  Adverbs can be an overly-simple narrative device, or they might be redundant.  And when you're trying to prove that adverbs can hurt your writing, you can very easily come up with an example of misuse.  To wit:

"I hate you!" Susan said hatefully.

So of course, people everywhere - in style guides, in forums, in writing workshops, in schools - repeat this bit of advice that probably did not originate from Stephen King, but which probably came from some dumbass Guide To Writerz by a stodgy Bostonian in the 1950s - like every arbitrary rule of grammar and style.

Except that I don't think that adverbs really hurt most of the time, not even when you're trying to Show-Not-Tell.  I think it's a pretty poor piece of advice to tell anyone that they should completely avoid using one of the basic components of the English language, even if the intent of your advice is sound.

Adverbs are just part of the magical tool-bag that every writer has at their disposal.  They're an excellent bit of support when trying to keep things concise, especially since they help you to maintain forward momentum.  Consider this:

He grabbed at the sofa awkwardly, excusing himself again and again as he wedged himself between Susan and Marcia.  "Sorry," he said, finally coming to a rest with his drink held high in the air with his left hand, and his right hand shoved halfway under Susan's thigh.  His eyes met her scowl.

I count two adverbs in there.  Now, I could just eliminate them altogether:

He grabbed at the sofa, excusing himself again and again as he wedged himself between Susan and Marcia.  "Sorry," he said, coming to a rest with his drink held high in the air with his left hand, and his right hand shoved halfway under Susan's thigh.  His eyes met her scowl.

The paragraph is still logical, but now our character is just "grabbing at the sofa," which by itself is ambiguous.  And true, he's still "coming to a rest," which some might argue is a stronger and more direct way of getting to the end of his movement.  Except that "finally" implies a long battle with gravity and social grace - by eliminating it, the paragraph is too smooth.

So, if you still want to get across that the character is a bumbling idiot, you have to go the opposite direction - adding more words.

He grabbed at the sofa with half-blind lunges, first clutching the headrest to steady himself, and then again at the cushion beneath.  He excused himself again and again as he struggled to wedge himself between Susan and Marcia.  After a long battle with gravity and social grace, he came to a rest,  holding his drink high in the air with his left hand, while his right hand was shoved halfway under Susan's thigh.  His eyes met her scowl.

To me, this seems cluttered.  Maybe some people like the extra actions because it helps them to visualize the scene, but I find them distracting and tedious.  By the time the dumbass sits down, I don't really care anymore.  So why not just use some adverbs to get him from point A to point B?

And although my initial example of a bad adverb was specifically with respect to dialogue, why not use adverbs to get across tone?  True, the words that the characters speak should communicate tone much moreso than any simple adverb ever could, but that doesn't mean they can't add useful information.

"Please, just stop," she said.

Is not as communicative as:


"Please, just stop," she said quietly.

Being quiet makes a difference.  If she's quiet, then her pleading is more feeble, possibly even introspective.  It can completely change the attitude of the character and the reader's interpretation.  It changes the pacing of the scene, it changes the relative weight of the character to whom she's speaking, and it adds a level of dread that might otherwise not be there.  Perhaps she is already defeated, as evidenced by the fact that she is quiet.

And you can't just swap out "said quietly" with "whispered" - whispering is an entirely different action, with its own subset of connotations.

"Please, just stop," she whispered. = Possibly a mother trying to get her son to quit fidgeting in church.

"Please, just stop," she said quietly.  =  Possibly a dark and morbid scene of assault.

And again, you could re-word to avoid the adverb, but is that really any better?

"Please, just stop," she said in a quiet voice.

More words is rarely better - and thus the value of the adverb.  Imagine that; a piece of our language that exists to succinctly describe an action actually does well at succinctly describing actions.

I'm sure I could come up with better examples if I took more time, but I don't want to beat a dead horse.  The short of it is just that I would like to officially come out In Favor of the Adverb, an undeservedly-maligned part of speech that has been ruthlessly cut down by writers for too long.  It is true that they can be abused, but that can be said of any element of writing.