The Spindlers By Lauren Oliver – A Discussion on Adverbs

Synopsis: Looking across the breakfast table one morning, twelve-year-old Liza feels dread wash over her. Although her younger brother, Patrick, appears the same, Liza knows that he is actually quite different. She is certain that the spindlers—evil, spiderlike beings—came during the night and stole his soul. And Liza is also certain that she is the only one who can rescue him.

Armed with little more than her wits and a huge talking rat for a guide, Liza descends into the dark and ominous underground to save Patrick’s soul. Her quest is far from easy: she must brave tree-snakes, the Court of Stones, and shape-shifting scawgs before facing her greatest challenge in the spindlers’ lair, where more than just Patrick’s soul is at stake.

For the Writer: Is the dreaded adverb a verbal crutch or action enhancer? Lauren Oliver is of the latter school, it seems, whereas other writers are of the former. You be the judge. From the first chapter Lauren enlists manner adverbs to set the tone of her story. I must mention a caveat at once. First person omniscient narrative can and does subtly shift from time to time from narrator to character narration. I do not mean the character’s thoughts. I am referring to point of view. For example, Oliver writes, “Liza wished, fiercely, that Patrick were with her.” ‘Fiercely’ along with ‘vastly’ is used more than once as one of Liza’s favourite expressions. Here the use of adverbs is to help us into the romantic and dramatic mind of Liza, who often sees things in extreme terms. However, there are times when the narrator reverts to omniscient narrator, yet continues to apply adverbs of manner to enhance actions. In the first two chapters Oliver employs at least twelve adverbs of manner, so of them the author is not shy.

The argument is that if one must use an adverb, the verb does not carry enough descriptive punch. Why say, for example, “He talked quietly,” when you could say: He whispered; He murmured; He cooed; He breathed; mumbled, muttered, droned; or, He talked as if he alone could hear the words; or, He talked like the rustle of the grass.
It is argued that to write ‘talked quietly’ is telling rather than showing and misses the opportunity to let us into the character and themes of the story. I agree. Let’s look at two examples from the first chapter:

1. The scratchy needles poked deeply into her skin. (p.9) When I read this I balked. ‘Deeply?’ Did the needles puncture her skin? No? Then, the needles poked her, period. Why not say, the needles dimpled her skin, or, if the writer would like to give more attention to the scene and attribute an anthropomorphic quality to the tree, write, “ The needles prodded her cheeks like a small army of impudent sprites pressing their prickly swords. It seems that ‘poked deeply’ says too much, yet not enough. I think it would be a weak point to argue that the author is writing from Liza’s direct point of view. As a reader, I had been prompted to make the switch from Liza to narrator.

2. Liza spoke a wish quietly into the scratchy branches. (p.9) One may argue that Liza whispered a wish is not the same as to speak quietly, that whispered is too banal and an avoidable alliteration. Granted. How about Liza entrusted a wish, or floated a wish, puffed a wish, slipped a wish, chanced a wish or even nudged a wish into the scratchy branches. Interesting verbs can betray a character’s weakness, cast a shadow, build a mood, or unveil an antagonist’s motive.

Take a second look at verbs employing adverbs of manner. Can a writer say something more with the artful verb?

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