Monthly Archives: October 2012

Melrosian modifiers

I googled “avoiding adverbs”. Then I browsed through some of the results. The message was clear. Adverbs are evil, and shall be avoided at any cost.


It is important that the story you tell comes through, so that the reader can understand it. Therefore, avoid unnecessary words. Often, adverbs are unnecessary.

And, of course, we have the Show, don’t tell paradigm, which if obeyed would make my prose better (perhaps). So I should not write

“I will kill you”, said the villain angrily.

Instead, I should write

“I will kill you”, said the villain, and killed his victim.

I reflected on these wise words of advice, and I also spent some time taking a peek into this entertaining book by one of the greatest. We learn there that The adverb is not your friend, and also that one should pay special attention to not use adverbs for dialogue attribution.

Also other forms of dialogue attribution should be handled with care. An example, again from On Writing, is

‘I’m the plumber,’ he said, with a flush

And please, do not substitute the plain ‘said’ for other words, chosen for the sake of making your point come through. So do not write

‘Put down the gun, Utterson!’, Jekyll grated.

These pieces of advice are very sound and they make sense to me. Checking my own endeavours, I find some adverbs here and there, but not too many as dialogue modifiers, so perhaps at least in that sense I do some things right?

But then I was confused. You see, I am reading this series of books that I find very good. There are four of them in my Kindle bundle, and there is now also a fifth book released.

The books, often referred to as the Patrick Melrose novels, portray a traumatic childhood, an evil father, a drug-abusing mother, and, as the years pass by, a drug-abusing child turned grown-up. But I did not find them any way near depressing. On the contrary, they are full of beautiful language, and large doses of both irony and humor.

So please meet Nicholas Pratt, in a relationship with the much younger and not at all so noble Bridget, when he, during a visit to the Melrose residence, observes Bridget acting in a not so proper way.

‘For God’s sake,’ snarled Nicholas, leaping over to her side.

Then, the drawing room door to the mansion opens, and out comes Yvette, the housemaid, carrying a tray of cakes and cups.

‘Ah, fantastique de vous revoir, Yvette,’ said Nicholas.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur.’
‘Bonjour,’ said Bridget prettily.
‘Bonjour, Madame,’ said Yvette stoutly, though she knew that Bridget was not married.

Then, as a result of Nicholas seeing David Melrose (Patrick’s father) in the doorway, the dialogue continues:

‘David!’, roared Nicholas over Yvette’s head. ‘Where have you been hiding?’

The next sentence, including also some body language, lets David explain, as

David waved his cigar at Nicholas. ‘Got lost in Surtees,’ he said, stepping through the doorway.

I find this style of writing at many places in the books, but I did not notice it until I read about adverbs and replacements for ‘said’. So in a sense, it did not bother me, and it did not hinder the flow in my reading.

Here is another example. It is from the second book, entitled Bad News, in which Patrick spends some time in New York. His father has recently passed away, and in this scene he visits the Key Club, a place to which one ‘comes in from the noise and the pollution of New York, and it’s quite suddenly like an English country house of a certain sort’.

He will meet some gentlemen. One is listening to the name of George (Watford I guess) and is a friend of Patrick’s father, and another one is called Ballantine Morgan. When Ballantine says hello to Patrick and directly afterwards mentions that he is very sorry to hear about Patrick’s father, and says ‘I didn’t know him personally, but from everything George tells me it sounds like he was a great English gentleman’, inner and outer dialogue follows, as

Jesus Christ, thought Patrick.
‘What have you been telling him?’ he asked George reproachfully.
‘Only what an exceptional man your father was.’
‘Yes, I’m pleased to say that he was exceptional,’ said Patrick. ‘I’ve never met anybody quite like him.’
‘He refused to compromise,’ drawled George. ‘What was it he used to say? “Nothing but the best, or go without.”‘
‘Always felt the same way myself,’ said Ballantine fatuously.
‘Would you like a drink?’ asked George.
‘I’ll have one of those Bullshots you spoke about so passionately this morning.’
‘Passionately,’ guffawed Ballantine.

I find that these modifiers – reproachfully, drawled, fatuously, guffawed – where some are adverbs and some are replacements for “said” – add a how-dimension to the story. Perhaps the reader is not only interested in what happens, but also very much in how it happens?

This thinking of what and how reminds me of an interesting book about the brain, a book where the two hemispheres of the brain are described, and discussed in very profound ways. The author, Ian McGilchrist, says that the right hemisphere helps us understand the “howness” of the world, whereas the left hemisphere is more what-centered. You might also like to look at this page, from the wonderful Brain pickings site, where the book is described, in an animated way (pun intended).

So perhaps an adverb here and there, and some well-thought-out replacements for said, combined with a dose of British irony, will make our stories more interesting?