What is a Story Without Adverbs?
by Lynn Truss
The question a lot of people have been asking me is, “So, Lynne, what’s the difference between writing these stories for radio and writing them as a novel?” This is because my new book A Shot in the Dark (first in a series of comic crime novels set in 1957, featuring Constable Twitten of the Brighton Constabulary) has its origins in a long-running series of radio comedies for the BBC in the UK. So the question is a good one, and I certainly enjoy answering it, partly because I’m fascinated in general by the demands of different forms of writing, but also because adapting this particular material to novel form wasn’t at all the easy-peasy business you might imagine. “But I know these characters!” I wailed. “This shouldn’t be so hard!” But my familiarity with the characters was, of course, a large part of the problem, and I admit that at first I struggled. I admit that I needed help.
So I thought I would write here about adverbs, because adverbs are a minor (but quite interesting) aspect of the leap I had to make from one form to the other. The thing is, adverbs are rightly objects of disdain in most forms of writing, but are essential in writing for radio – they are your prop; your crutch; your helpmeet. For example, take the bald line of radio dialogue: “You’re right, Constable Twitten. I admit it. I murdered him.” Then imagine, in brackets before that speech, any one of the following adverbs: quietly; hotly; defiantly; sarcastically; coolly; dispassionately; self-pityingly; tauntingly. You see how helpful that is? You see how much work those adverbs are potentially doing? (I am told, by the way, that movie writers do not supply such prescriptive hints to actors, and that the practice is frowned on. But in the world of radio, where rehearsal time is minimal and studio time is limited, let me assure you: written stage directions really do cut the crap.)
So I would say that I have spent many an hour in my writing life reaching for – and nailing – the pertinent adverb for the sake of a radio script. And then, suddenly, I decide to write A Shot in the Dark and I find myself … free! I am no longer in the dark, hearing voices, and I no longer have to rely on modifying words ending in “ly”! Well, what a luxury. What brave new world is this? As a novelist, you have so many other ways of contextualising your character’s words: you can describe a person’s character, history, actions and demeanour. You can enter his very thoughts.
It was all up, then? Johnny felt all the bluster drain from him.
“You’re right, Constable Twitten,” he said, sitting down and wringing his hands. “I admit it. I murdered him.”
A Shot in the Dark isn’t my first novel, I ought to explain, but it’s the first time I have wrestled with the form, and I think the exercise has done my writing nothing but good. I expect there are still countless adverbs in A Shot in the Dark, but please don’t write to me to point them out, because a) that’s not the right way to read a book, and b) it’s too late to change them now, you idiot.
I think we should all remember (she concluded, somewhat grandly) the words of the great Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing, where he says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” When I first read On Writing, I remember I found this dictum a tad harsh, but my own experience as a newly-emancipated radio writer has now confirmed for me that he’s right; there is simply no excuse for them – and I vow right here to be much more vigilant in future. Be merciless with the insidious adverb, King commands (authoritatively). Tear them out like dandelions, because once they (surreptitiously) take root in a person’s prose they (scarily) spread, and then you will find they are (alarmingly) much, much harder to get out.
Lynne Truss is a celebrated author, scriptwriter, columnist, and broadcaster. Truss is the writer of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including the bestselling book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She lives on the south coast of England with two Norfolk terriers.