Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Proof that outstanding writers have no rules

I've talked before about how adverbs can ruin your story and make agents and editors run screaming from your partials. They are a sign of weak writing, and you should use them sparingly if you want to be at all successful as a writer. In that same post, I mentioned something that Tom Franklin, southern writer extradordinaire, said at the writer's conference I attended: no matter the rule, some writer somewhere has broken it and broken it beautifully.

I couldn't help but be reminded of this rule on my drive to Atlanta this weekend. During road trips, I always listen to books on CD to pass the time, and this time I decided to revisit an old favorite: Jim Dale reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (for the ride up) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (for the ride down). I don't know what it is about the way that he reads, but for some reason I noticed something that I've often heard is a weakness of J.K. Rowlings but I've never noticed before - overuse of adjectives.

To prove my point, here is a random sample from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (pg. 187-188):
Harry ducked swiftly behind his cauldron, pulled one of Fred's Filibuster fireworks out of his pocket, and gave it a quick prod with his wand. The firework began to fizz and sputter. Knowing he had only seconds, Harry straightened up, took aim, and lobbed it into the air; it landed right on target in Goyle's cauldron.

Goyle's potion exploded, showering the whole class. People shrieked as splashes of Swelling Solution hit them. Malfoy got a faceful and his nose began to swell like a balloon; Goyle blundered around, his hands over his eyes, which had expanded to the size of a dinner plate -- Snape was trying to restore calm and find out what had happened. Through the confusion, Harry saw Hermione slip quietly into Snape's office.

"Silence! SILENCE!" Snape roared. "Anyone who has been splashed, come here for a Deflating Draft -- when I find out who did this --"

Harry tried not to laugh as he watched Malfoy hurry forward, his head drooping with the weight of a nose like a small melon. As half the class lumbered up to Snape's desk, some weighted down with arms like clubs, others unable to talk through gigantic puffed-up lips, Harry saw Hermione slide back into the dungeon, the front of her robes bulging.

When everyone had taken a swig of antidote and the various swellings had subsided, Snape swept over to Goyle's cauldron and scooped out the twisted black remains of the firework. There was a sudden hush.

"If I ever find out who threw this," Snape whispered, "I shall make sure that person is expelled."

Harry arranged his face into what he hoped was a puzzled expression. Snape was looking right at him, and the bell that rang ten minutes later could not have been more welcome.

"He knew it was me," Harry told Ron and Hermione as they hurried back to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. "I could tell."

Hermione threw the new ingredients into the cauldron and began to stir feverishly.

"It'll be ready in two weeks," she said happily.

"Snape can't prove it was you," said Ron reassuringly to Harry. "What can he do?"

"Knowing Snape, something foul," said Harry as the potion frothed and bubbled. 
So, in a page and a half we have five adverbs, two of which are the super-evil speech attribution adverbs, and three of which are within one line of each other.

BUT...does anyone really care about this? Because let's look at something else this scene gives us...some damn fine description, and some bits that even make me laugh out loud. It also gives great characterization for Snape - the hush when he finds the firework (although maybe it shouldn't have been "sudden," which I've heard is on a lot of agent/edior hit lists), and the fact that he can whisper a threat and it is even more menacing than if he had shouted it.  SPOILER ALERT AHEAD FOR BOOK FIVE. DON'T READ THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THROUGH ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (although if you haven't read them by now, that's really not my fault) Something else that this scene gives us is an incling that Snape can read Harry's mind, which of course we find out later is something he's quite skilled at. And all in this little scene in potions class.

So even though this writing sample does show some signs of weak writing (and even though JKR put an adverb in the title, the TITLE, of her seventh Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), how many people really care? Her skill as a world-builder, storyteller, foreshadower and ability to keep us involved allows us to forgive her love of adverbs. Would her writing possibly be better if she took the adverbs out? Maybe. But then these books would be so great that no one else would ever want to read anything, ever, and the rest of us would all be out of dreams/jobs.

Proof that, once again, if you're a good enough writer, you can break any rule you damn well please.


  1. Very true. With almost every rule (except maybe the one about writers have to write) there are going to be exceptions.

  2. Adverbs can be wonderfully used. No adverbs in writing doesn't quite sound right. I just used one in my first sentence.

  3. If the rules won't bend you have to break them. :)
    A few adverbs and adjectives never hurt anyone.

  4. Amen! Amen! I hate that stupid rule. Adverbs CAN add something special to your prose. Sure, you don't want to use them in every paragraph, but goodness! That's crazy to not be able to use any adverbs!

    I say let's FREE THE ADVERBS!!!!!!

  5. Oh man, her adverb use REALLY sticks out at you when you listen to the audiobooks! I hear them like crazy when I'm listening at the gym.

    But I would also give my right arm to be 1/25th of the writer she is.

  6. I love to live in danger... so I would be the exception... just kidding. I love J.K. Rowling and I thought she had some of the most amazing writing! So I can see how she would definitely be the exception!

  7. Do you get the feeling that rules were created by those that couldn't write and ignored by those that can?

  8. Dawn - Definitely agree! JKR isn't the only one, she's just the one that happens to be on my mind.

    Harvee - I absolutely (hehe) agree that adverbs can add a lot when used well! I even talked about it in my original post on adverbs, and mentioned how to use one.

    Karen - Of course not! I wasn't saying that a few here and there would - just pointing out that one of the masters uses them a LOT and people still love her. :)

    Frankie - Woot!

    sherrinda - LOL! I think so much emphasis gets placed on not using adverbs that people tend to freak out about them and cut every single one from their book, but of course you can and should leave some in.

    Jessica - Definitely! I never noticed them as much until I started listening. I think part of it is because Jim Dale is so great that you don't need the attribution tags; he says thinks angrily and moodily and happily, so it's just redundant when he then reads the tag.

    Jen - Haha, go for it! If your story is good enough, people might not care. An agent or editor might take them all away, but if everything else is wonderful, adverbs are a small thing to worry about.

    Ed - Hm....interesting theory/quote. I like it. Then again, Stephen King is one of the biggest proponents of the no-adverb rule (he mentions it in On Writing, though he also mentions that he uses them all the time). I haven't read enough of his work to judge him as a writer, but millions of people seem to think he's pretty darn great.

  9. I've seen it worse with other writers, though their names don't pop to mind at the moment.

    With the HP series, the voice and characters and plot of it all is just so pulling that you don't stop often to think about the odds and bods, especially when you first read them. I notice it more easily with other author's works. Telling instead of showing. Too many sentences that start with 'and' and more.

    Yay you for using examples with Snape in them. He's my favourite fictional character.♥

  10. I agree, too! Adverbs can add a lot when used in the right way. They're like garlic: Use a pinch and it gives everything a nice flavor. Use too much and everyone gets stank breath.

  11. Hee hee, I LOVE this! And I love that you point out, that yes, if you are good enough, rules are indeed made to be broken.

  12. I think adverbs used appropriately are good, but overuse can lead to your reader being bored. I listen to Librivox audiobooks (public domain books read by volunteers) while I'm at work, and noticed a lot of older literature uses adverbs a lot. For your enjoyment (or annoyance) here is a bit from the first page from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

    (Pretend there is a quote divider here; I can't remember how to do it...)

    "I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

    "We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.

    The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, "We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time." She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

    Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, "You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don't," and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

    The whole book is like that, and it is regarded as a classic, and, as Heather pointed out in her December 7 post, considered YA. The book is slow reading and tedious listening at some points, but overall not a bad story, and better written as some popular books nowadays. (Besides, last time I listened to Little Women, I was reminded of what Heather has been blogging about many of the perils Jo goes through.)

    Other authors from the era and previous wrote like that, too, although adverbs are fewer and farther between. For example: Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and so on, and who (at least in my opinion) are not boring or tedious at all. Maybe it is just a sign of the times that agents/publishers pay more attention to adverbs now.


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