Remember how I talked about cramming the universe into a teaspoon when it came to comparing J K Rowling with Stephenie Meyer? Well, when I actually started on discussing the writing, I discovered that I had to split it into two. This is the second half of round 3. The reason it took so long was that it was STILL getting out of hand. Therefore, there will also be a Round 5. It’ll probably stop there. Probably.
In this round, we will look more closely at the way these two ladies write – specifically, their use of description and their ability to create unique characters… or the lack thereof.
(A note about spoilers: I will keep Harry Potter spoilers to a minimum, only letting go the kind of information that you could pick up from your standard movie trailer and have probably picked up on already, unless you live in a world without other people. Twilight spoilers, on the other hand, abound, because I can’t “spoil” Twilight any more than I can “spoil” a compost heap.)
Description: Leave Some Things Up To The Imagination.
- Thanks to Reasoning With Vampires
I really feel bad for Stephenie Meyer, because she tries so hard, bless her. You can tell, reading these books, that she believes that the soul of the writer lies in good description.
She’s half-right. Description is important, but only because doing it wrong makes you look like a complete imbecile, and bores the hell out of everyone. Stephen King’s invaluable book, “On Writing” emphasizes this above all else.
… kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”- Stephen King, “On Writing
Stephen King reminds us that our readers have imaginations. You don’t need to describe every little thing – just a few key points to give the reader a general idea. Readers will fill in the blanks themselves.
Aspiring writers spend a lot of time trying to write good description… but the successful writers learn to cut it out.
I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” – Stephen King, “On Writing
You can tell that neither Rowling nor Meyer have read this seminal work on authorship.
Meyer, especially, suffers from a serious description disease. She seems to think that for every noun that lacks a preceding adjective, Baby Jesus kills a puppy while weeping tears of blood on the Virgin Mary’s best cashmere sweater.
This often results in bizarre adjective-noun combinations, such as “warm teak” (does teak wood change colour when heated?) or “liquid topaz” (Do gem stones, when melted, retain their original colour? Or do Edward’s eyes just look like magma?).
She also loves to throw in a simile AFTER the noun, just to really hammer the image home.
To prove my point, here is a random sample from Eclipse:
Finally, something glittered in the blackness – their eyes, higher up than they should be. I’d forgotten how very tall the wolves were. Like horses, only thick with muscle and fur – and teeth like knives, impossible to overlook. I could only see the eyes. And as I scanned, straining to see more, it occurred to me that there were more than six pairs facing us.
Holy unnecessary description, Batman. She takes a paragraph to describe the werewolves to us even though all she can see right now are the eyes. Also, don’t you love the actual description? “Like horses, only thick with muscle and fur.”
The best-written part of the Twilight books is the only part not narrated by Bella Swan. Jacob Black, as a narrator, spends a lot less time describing things.
Rowling does a little better than Meyer.
While she also uses description heavily, her sentences are not as easy to mock because she knows how to actually use words (we’ll get to that in Round 5).
This is a random sample from Deathly Hallows:
The muddy river beside them was rising rapidly and would soon spill over on to their bank. They had lingered a good hour after they would usually have departed their camp site. Finally, having repacked the beaded bag three times, Hermione seemed unable to find any more reasons to delay: she and Harry grasped hands and Disapparated, reappearing on a windswept, heather-covered hillside.
Rowling may not use description with the sparse economy of Jane Austen, but she doesn’t interrupt the story to throw in a paragraph of adjectives and similes, either. The river is muddy. The bag is beaded. The hillside is windy and covered in heather. All of these are mentioned in passing, rather than being given their own side-quest.
Here is the above paragraph as I imagine Meyer might have written it:
The river was brown – like liquid mud – and it was getting higher and higher up the bank; soon it would spill out like a pot of water that Charlie had left on the stove. They stayed as long as they could – longer than they normally would have. But finally – after Hermione had unpacked and repacked the glittering, purple bag that she had carefully decorated with beads three times – she and Harry held on to each other tightly and disappeared into thin air. Reappearing, they found themselves on a blustery hillside, which was coated in tufts of purple be-flowered heather.
Meyer also seems to worry constantly that we might forget how things look. She will repeat a description again and again. After all, children, if you describe something as “beautiful” once, you need to keep doing it, otherwise people might forget that Edward is attractive.
Rowling tends to describe things… and then let them be. We are told that Harry has messy hair, but this usually only comes up about once or twice per book. We know that Hermione has buck teeth, but this is only mentioned a few times as well. We know that Ron has blue eyes, but Rowling doesn’t need to remind us of this every time he walks into the room. And not once does she compare Harry’s hair to an unruly field, Hermione’s teeth to that of a beaver in need of orthodontics, or Ron’s eyes to the colour of soggy sapphires.
Rowling does have a weakness, though. While, unlike Meyer, Rowling can let the occasional noun tip-toe by without an adjective or simile as a chaperone, she does have a terrible weakness:
Close to 50% of her dialogue is modified with descriptive adverbs.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King, “On Writing
Hodgepodge first pointed this out, and I checked, and she is absolutely right. It’s funny I hadn’t noticed it before.
Here is a random sample of dialogue, this time from Azkaban:
There was nothing woolly about the Grim in that cup!” said Ron hotly.
“You didn’t seem so confidant when you were telling me it was a sheep,” said Hermione coolly.
And they don’t only pop out in the dialogue. The adverbs are everywhere. It’s a tragic failing to discover in such an otherwise brilliant author. I was scolded out of dialogue tags back in Grade 5.
What’s wrong with them?
Well, Stephen King argues that if you set things up correctly, you should know how a certain sentence was spoken without the need of being told after the fact how you should have interpreted it. And he’s right.
Elmore Leonard agrees:
To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. – Elmore Leonard,”Ten Rules of Writing
Personally, I don’t really mind them that much. Rowling still manages to use them cleverly (notice the dichotomy of hotly vs coolly in the above random sample) and often they serve to further the characterization or to give a humorous inflection.
She does generally avoid that utmost hallmark of uncoolness, the Swifty, which is the Comic Sans of dialogue tags. But I caught one the other day:
In Prizoner of Azkaban, the characters frequently mention a particular kind of dog, called The Grim. Then, towards the end of the book, when the dog reappears, this sentence arises:
“He’s friends with that dog,” said Harry grimly.
Thankfully, that kind of atrocity is extremely rare. Most of her adverbs are much more tasteful. That being said, it is lazy writing. I can’t argue with Misters King and Leonard about that.
Being a genius doesn’t make adverbs ok, even if you use the E.E. Cummings principle of “once you know the rules, it’s ok to break them to make a point”.
Meyer actually does better than Rowling on this point.
While Meyer certainly doesn’t shy away from the adverb, she isn’t as predictable and unrelenting about them as Rowling is.
BUT… she’s worse for trying to get creative with dialogue tags. Rowling may modify how things are spoken, but Meyer suffers from some sort of “said” phobia.
This is another habit I got scolded out of when I was 10 years old. My teacher explained to me that people rarely notice “said” but that words like “she shouted” or “she whimpered” distract from the dialogue.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.” – Elmore Leonard, “Ten Rules of Writing
Stephen King agrees, pointing out that if there is an exclamation mark after a sentence, you really don’t need to add “she exclaimed” or “he yelled”, and if there is a question mark, you really don’t need to hear “he asked” or “she wondered”.
Again, you need to have a little faith in your reader’s capacity for imagination. If your reader can’t read an exclamation mark and “hear” the exclamation in the sentence, your prose is probably lost on them anyway.
So, which is worse? Meyer’s purple prose, or Rowling’s adverb affliction?
Thanks to Reasoning With Vampires
Yeah, sorry Meyer, Rowling wins again.
Characters: They Shouldn’t All Be You.
I’ve talked a lot about the characters in these books, so I wasn’t sure whether to include this. But after all, if we’re directly comparing the writing, I think characterization needs to be touched on. This isn’t about whether the characters are good people. This is about how well the characters are written.
The first thing to ponder is the tell vs show style of characterization. Or, as writers call it, the direct vs indirect styles. In the direct style of characterization, you tell your readers what they should think of the characters.
Bella is a selfish snotbag
Harry has a lot of pent-up anger issues.
Indirect characterization, on the other hand, involves the characters just acting like themselves and you figuring it out on your own.
Bella lied to her father because telling the truth would be too complicated
Harry began smashing everything on Dumbledore’s desk
Stephenie Meyer is clearly a fan of the direct style of characterization. She seems to feel that the important thing is to simply tell you what to think about the other characters, rather than actually bothering to make them behave in characteristic ways.
Rowling, on the other hand, specializes in indirect characterization. When we meet a new character she tends to describe a few key physical features, and then she leaves you to divine their personality from their behavior in the book.
The first set of characters Rowling ever describes are the Dursleys. These characters will be recurring antagonists throughout the series. The Dursleys are snobby social climbers notable for their small mindedness, lack of empathy, and racism (this is my direct characterization of them). If I were Meyer, I would just tell you this and leave it at that.
Observe how Rowling introduces these people to her readers:
Mr and Mrs Dursley of number 4 Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much[…] Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the normal amount of neck, which came in useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys has a small son named Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
Rowling doesn’t tell us what we should think about these characters. She doesn’t say that they are snobby, or nosey, but we still get the distinct impression of both. Rowling trusts us to read between the lines.
Rather than tell us “Dudley is spoiled” she shows us how the Dursleys spoil him. Rather than say “Mr. Dursley is racist” she lets us listen to him talking about his “Japanese golfer joke” and leaves us to make our own conclusions. That’s how she operates.
Meanwhile, let’s look at how Meyer introduces characters:
My mom looks like me, except with short hair and laugh lines [ed: Bella has not yet described herself, so this is a useless sort of description, but WHATEVER]. I felt a spasm of panic as I started into her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, hare-brained mother to fend for herself?
Instead of showing us how scatter-brained Renee is supposed to be, Bella just tells us outright. We don’t see Renee being erratic or hare-brained by, say, getting the flight time wrong or getting lost on the way to the airport or something. In fact, I can’t think of a single time in the series when I actually see Renee demonstrate any of the above characteristics. We just get these traits slapped on, as though they are as visible and quantifiable as the physical characteristics that are being described.
Of course, I can’t just condemn Meyer simply because she relies more heavily on direct characterization than Rowling. Really, this is covering old ground – the obsessive use of adjectives rearing its ugly head once again.
So let’s move on to maintaining characterization.
This is where Meyer overtly fails. The difficulty with her slap-em-with-a-label style of characterization is that now she has pigeon-holed a character. I think it seems reasonable to expect that once the narrator has said “Bob is quiet” or “Sally is mean”, Bob should say little and Sally should be a bitch.
Stephenie Meyer, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to agree with me on this point.
In Meyer-land, once you have stapled a character trait to someone, how they actually act/speak no longer matters.
Since Rowling doesn’t type-cast her characters, it’s less noticeable when a character does something unusual. Even so, it is usually noted – Harry gets suspicious when Malfoy doesn’t turn up for Quidditch, he and Ron are shocked whenever Hermione flouts authority, and when Dudley says something nice to Harry, we are all blown away.
Aunt Petunia ran forwards and embraced Dudley rather than Harry.
“S-so sweet, Dudders…” she sobbed into his massive chest, “s-such a lovely b-boy…s-saying thank you…”
“But he hasn’t said thank you at all!” said Hestia indignantly. “He only said he didn’t think Harry was a waste of space!”
“Yeah, but coming from Dudley that’s like “I love you,” said Harry, torn between annoyance and a desire to laugh
Meyer, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to feel the need to actively demonstrate her characters’ personality traits OR remark on anything they might do which contradicts the labels she has slapped on them. She TOLD us that Renee is hare-brained and erratic, so does it really matter that we never actually see her behaving in any such manner?
Perhaps that is unfair. After all, Bella’s mother gets cameo appearances at best throughout the books. She doesn’t really have half a chance to demonstrate her supposed personality.
What about, oh, say… BELLA?
Bella is supposedly clumsy, but has no problem parking in tight parking spaces. She is supposedly plain, but has the whole town drooling over her. She is supposedly poor, but has a college fund and enough money to buy a car. Nor are any of these contradictions ever pointed out within the books.
Well, but sure, you say. She’s the narrator. Maybe her self-perception is off.
Well, yes, she IS the narrator, and we’ve already established that she is poorly fit for this role.
So what about the other characters?
For the most part, characters tend to act within their type-cast roles – the mothers are motherly, the fathers are fatherly, the girls are girly, Jacob is impulsive and Edward is creepy. But when Meyer needs Charlie to be chatty, Bella to be brilliant, Edward to be obtuse, or Rosalie to be welcoming, she feels free to throw previous established traits out the door without so much as a kiss goodbye.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their directly established personalities, Meyer’s characters remain remarkably two dimensional. Funnily enough, this becomes even more glaring when the characters‘ backstories are revealed. Somehow, their backstories throw their complete lack of personality into relief.
Take Esme. Her typecast role is “motherly”, so pretty much all she does is pat people on the shoulder and say encouraging things, or urge people not to hurt each other. When her backstory is revealed, we learn that she cast herself off of a cliff when her baby died.
“did Edward ever tell you I lost a child?”
“No,” I murmured, stunned, scrambling to understand what lifetime she was remembering.
“Yes, my first and only baby. He died just a few days after he was born, the poor tiny thing,” she sighed. “It broke my heart- that’s why I jumped off the cliff, you know,” she added matter-of-factly.
Carlisle “rescued” her by giving her three days of torment followed by eternal life. Now, thank heavens, I have never lost a child. But I have to say that if I did, and I was driven to suicide over it, I would not be GRATEFUL when I was told that I had been made immortal and could never, ever, ever join my baby in the afterlife.
But Esme married the guy who did this to her. I really don’t consider that consistent characterization. Or, you know, healthy.
(Just to be clear, I’m not saying that people should kill themselves after losing a child, or that it should be impossible to recover emotionally. I just think that it might take a while to forgive the guy who “saved” you with three days of physical torment and made you infertile in the process, and that the kind of person who jumps off a cliff when their baby dies doesn’t seem like the calm “tut tut” sort of personality that Esme generally demonstrates).
The other thing you really notice when Twilight characters talk is… you really need those speech tags, because otherwise you wouldn’t know who is speaking.
All Twilight characters sound the same.
This is one of the most glaring differences between Twilight and Harry Potter.
Harry Potter characters each have their own unique speech patterns. For one thing, many speak in regional dialects.
Thus, Seamus Finnigan (whose name is so Irish that you feel tipsy just reading it) talks like this:
“Me dad’s a Muggle. Mam didn’t tell him she was a witch ’til after they were married. Bit of a nasty shock for him.”
I don’t think Seamus is out-and-out declared as being Irish until Goblet of Fire. But we all knew, didn’t we?
Then there’s Hagrid, and his thick Devon speech.
“Be grateful if yeh didn’t mention that ter anyone at Hogwarts,” he said “I’m – er- not supposed ter do magic, strictly speakin'”
Or Fleur Delacour, who comes from France and sounds like it.
Even without an accent, you can recognize characters by what they say and how they say it.
Ron, for example, tends to use slangy speech, like “reckon” and “git” and he employs a lot of contractions. In general, enunciation is not something Ron particularly values.
“Ow kunnit nofe skusin danger ifzat?” said Ron. His mouth was so full Harry thought it was quite an achievement for him to make any noise at all.
“I beg your pardon?” said Nearly Headless Nick politely, while Hermione looked revolted.
Meanwhile Hermione uses much more formal language, peppered with exasperated expressions like “Honestly!” and she is often saying something irritable, intellectual, snobby, or combining all three.
Oh, HONESTLY, don’t you two read?
Then there are the Weasley twins, Fred and George. You can spot them coming from a mile away, especially when they are taking the piss out of their brother, Percy.
“I hope you’re well?” said Percy pompously, shaking hands. It was rather like being introduced to the mayor.
“Very well, thanks-“
“Harry!” said Fred, elbowing Percy out of the way and bowing deeply. “Simply splendid to see you, old boy-“
“Marvellous,” said George, pushing Fred aside and seizing Harry’s hand in turn. “Absolutely spiffing.”
“That’s enough now,” said Mrs Weasley.
“Mum!” said Fred, as though he’d only just spotted her, and seized her hand, too. “How really corking to see you-“
But in Twilight, I find most of the characters virtually indistinguishable in their speech.
First, there’s our narrator, Bella.
As we already know, she has a tendency for obsessive adjective use. She also tends towards melodramatic tones, and you get the impression that she loves her thesaurus not wisely but too well.
Sample speech from Bella:
I could really appreciate him now – could properly see every beautiful line of his perfect face, of his long, flawless body with my strong new eyes, every angle and every plane of him. I could taste his pure, vivid scent on my tongue and feel the unbelievable silkiness of his marble skin under my sensitive fingertips.
Now, let’s listen to Carlisle speak. He’s three hundred years old, you know. Grew up in Britain in the 1600s. Here’s a little monologue from him:
“You must,” she said, clutching my hand with enough strength that I wondered if she wouldn’t pull through the crisis after all. Her eyes were hard, like stones, like emeralds. “You must do everything in your power. What others cannot do, that is what you must do for my Edward.”
Not only does Carlisle sound like Bella, but he sounds like Bella does when she’s narrating.
This reminds me of an actor I once worked with, who was supposed to be reading a letter out loud, and no matter how hard the director tried to explain it to him, he couldn’t get the difference between reading the lines as though he was narrating it, and reading the lines as though he was just discovering the bad news for himself. Thus Horatio ended up reading the letter in dramatic tones as though he had known all along that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dead. Maybe Hamlet sent him a text message as warning.
Then there’s Jasper. He e was born in Texas and fought in the Confederate Army. Can’t you tell it from the way he talks?
“They had such pale skin, I remember marveling at it. Even the little black-haired girl, whose features were clearly Mexican, was porcelain in the moonlight. They seemed young, all of them, still young enough to be called girls. I knew they were not lost members of our party. I would have remembered seeing these three.
Now, I’m not asking that he say “howdy” instead of “hi” and use “y’all” constantly, but Meyer could at least nod at the fact that Jasper spent 100 years of his life in the American South.
But to be fair, Carlisle has been living in the United States for at least 100 years, and Jasper has lived in the Greater North West for at least 20 or 30 years. Maybe accents fade. Maybe it’s a vampire thing, developing bland Yankee accents and a tendency for flowery diction.
But surely Aro, a 3000 year old Greek who now lives in Italy, will have a trace of an accent, or at least speech patterns reminiscent of his mother tongue?
Oh yeah, that is clearly a Greco-Roman dude talking.
The fact is, none of the characters in Twilight have any unique speech patterns. They all sound just like Bella.
Bella occasionally refers to Edward’s “old-fashioned” speech, but I don’t see much evidence of it.
“Esme wouldn’t care if you had a third eye and webbed feet. All this time she’s been worried about me, afraid that there was something missing from my essential makeup, that I was too young when Carlisle changed me…. She’s ecstatic. Every time I touch you, she just about chokes with satisfaction.”
Mmm, yes, he sounds just like Cary Grant when he talks, doesn’t he?
The exception to the communal voice thing is Jacob, who Meyer never got around to pigeon holing, and therefore actually took on a life of his own. His narrated section in Breaking Dawn is noticeably shorter on purple prose than the rest of the series.
So perhaps I’m not being fair. Since Bella is a first person narrator, retelling all of this to us, maybe the characters are just tainted through Bella’s appalling narration? Maybe that means that Bella is, in herself, a distinct character?
I left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes. However, so many people have asked this question, I have decided to tell you what she looks like to me. But I want to stress, Bella’s looks are open to interpretation. – Stephenie Meyer
Or, they’re all YOU! WELL DONE.
Rowling wins. AGAIN.
**I wrote a book! Twilight annoyed me so much that I decided to write a story that was the exact opposite. You can check it out here.**