A few posts ago, I mentioned that I don’t “do” vampires. I don’t like movies featuring them, books about them, or–worse yet–book-and-movie empires revolving around them. But in the interest of reading around, and of knowing whereof I spoke when I wanted to criticize, I had to do it. I read the Twilight series.
Here’s where I start to cringe. I don’t want to admit that I devoted many hours to teenaged vampire romance. But in writing Jacob Wrestling, I needed to know the landscape of YA fiction, and Twilight and its mimic are, for better or worse, the bulk of that landscape. As I’ve said before, one can learn just as much about the writing craft from a “bad” story as a great one. (And Twilight’s been charged with badness running the gamut from poor story structure to moral depravity. My favorite charge against Twilight comes from the religious right, though the books promote abstinence, traditional marriage, and an anti-abortion mindset. Funny, that.) In a poor book, there are still lessons are on the page, though in the form of cautionary tales rather than good examples. While we could shoot the barrel-fish of thematics, gender-role reinforcement, and setting bad examples for our teenaged girls, I’m more interested in what goes on at the sentence level with Stephanie Meyer’s prose. If I crack one of the books, let’s say New Moon, at an arbitrary midway point, it takes me just a few moments and three pages to collect this list:
“I breathed deeply.”
“My eyes narrowed enviously.”
“I’d been needlessly reckless.”
“I examined myself clinically.”
“I frowned guiltily.”
It doesn’t take the keenest eye in critical reading to spot the similarities in these sentences: adverbs. Adverbs that describe the obvious (recklessness is by definition needless), adverbs intended to convey something the dialogue or first-person narration could have taken care of (guilty feelings aren’t all that hard to convey without explicit tagging), or adverbs that just seem creepy (something about giving oneself a clinical examination sounds…wrong).
In poetry, we don’t throw adverbs around very much at all. Strong nouns and evocative verbs are at the basis of the well-rendered line. Because it was so rare for me to use the adverb in a poem, I was surprised when my thesis advisor campaigned against its single instance in my Masters’ collection. I thought the word was rather snazzy, and, in a way, the poem revolved around it. I was flummoxed by my mentor’s insistence that the adverb was so wrong, so bad. In the end, I left it in. When Burn This House comes out from Red Hen Press, you can make your own assessment as to whether I or my advisor was right.
But since the war over that one word, I’ve never committed an adverb to my fiction without a great deal of thought. If I consider the context long enough, it’s rare that I don’t find a way to get the point across with a more elegant turn or phrase or a more subtle and connotative gesture.
So what happens if we strip the adverbs from Meyer’s prose? Well, “I breathed” and “I frowned” start sounding rather dull indeed; they’re basically homeostasis pretending to be action. If we point out the fact that several of these are also dialogue tags, this creates another problematic situation. I’m a firm believer in the word “said”; it’s rare that anyone needs to “whisper,” “glower,” “murmur,” or “exclaim.” If the action and dialogue carry enough content, the volume and manner speech ought to be obvious. Now that we’re rid of the adverbs, and the excesses in dialogue tags, ” ‘Uh-oh,’ Jessica said apologetically” turns into nothing but an “uh-oh.” Okay, so we’ll give her the “said.” But still, this is some uncommunicative dialogue! Without adverbs and heavy-handed tags, the page doesn’t hold much more than flat characters, unrevealing talk and ironic narration.
Whatever troubles Twilight may have thematically, it’s this nuts-and-bolts level of construction that really gets to me. But millions of teenaged girls can’t be wrong about what they like, can they? If the writing’s not so hot, why do girls swoon for these books? Next time, I’m going to attempt to identify what it is that Meyer’s getting so right.