Bystander: Chapter 2 (and some thoughts on adverbs)

Click here in case you missed Chapter 1 a couple of weeks back — that is, I mean, if you want to. And don’t worry, there are 34 Chapters in the book; I’m not going to give away the entire thing.

One note about craft: I made it my mission to eliminate adverbs, particularly where it concerned dialogue. It’s interesting to me how that rigor affected tone, helped give it a  lean directness. It even affected the chapter titles, which are all one word in length: ketchup, school, slander, friend, shiner, locker, threat, etc. The narrator doesn’t often explain what characters are thinking, doesn’t intrude. There it is, this is what they are doing; good dialogue delivers the meaning without ornamentation. Let the reader figure out the whys and wherefores. Removing adverbs also forces you to demand more of your verbs; it forces you, I think, to write better. When it comes to dialogue, I favor “said” in most cases. Again, that conscious choice is about invisibility — the writer getting out of the way. So when Eric thinks at the end of the chapter, No choice at all, he doesn’t think it “immediately” or “sadly” or “angrily” or “remorsefully” or “suddenly.” He just thinks it.

On a side note, I recently finished a book for a different publisher where a copyeditor kept trying to insert adverbs into the final revise. And I kept hitting delete, delete, delete. Don’t get me wrong. The copyeditor helped in many ways, suggesting improvements throughout. I’m grateful for the help. But adverbs in dialogue? Almost always the answer is no, no, no.



THEY CAME SOON AFTER, AS ERIC HAD GUESSED they might. Four of them on bicycles. Three boys and a girl.

Eric was alone on the court, standing at the foul line. He dribbled twice, caught the ball in both hands, feeling for the lines of the ball with his fingertips. Foul-shooting was a ritual, a practiced set of precise patterns. He took a deep breath, blew the air out, bent his knees, eyes fixed on the rim. Elbow up and out, wrist flicked. The ball shivered through the mesh. Perfect.

The hunters came from around the far side of the big brick building. They weren’t pedaling hard, didn’t seem in any big hurry. They were talking and laughing as they rode, glancing around, the trail gone cold. Eric retrieved the ball and stepped back to the foul line. He glanced behind him, in the direction where the ketchup-boy had fled. There was no sign of the boy; he had vanished like a ghost among the tombstones. That left just Eric. And now the bike-riders were headed his way, four sailboats fixed on a distant shore, tacking this way and that in zigs and zags, but surely aimed toward the boy on the court in red basketball shorts, white new kicks, and a sleeveless tee.

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

The other three stayed on their bicycles and slowly circled the perimeter of the court, riding behind Eric and then back around and around, the noose of their circle drawing tighter each time. They, too, said nothing, as if content to wait for instructions.

Eric wondered if something bad was about to happen. And he wondered, too, if there might be anything he could do to avoid it. A part of him watched the scene unfold as if he wasn’t in the middle of it, as if it was in a movie or something, as if he watched from an overhead camera, the cyclists circling like vultures around a carcass.

“You didn’t see anybody come by here, did you?” the boy asked.

“Looks like a French fry,” a skinny, hatchet-faced boy added. He laughed, and the third boy joined in. Eric glanced at them, avoiding eye contact, then turned to look directly back at the leader, the one who had asked the question.

“I’ve been shooting around,” Eric explained with a shrug. “I didn’t really –-“

“Nobody, huh,” the brown-haired boy said, sliding off his bike and dropping it carelessly to the ground. He didn’t look that big or that strong, but he moved with an easy confidence. There was toughness there, a hardness beneath the long lashes and full lips. The boy held out his hands, clapped once. Said, “Let’s see that ball, huh.”

Eric didn’t hesitate. He made a sharp bounce pass to the boy. “Sure, here,” he said, as if there was nothing he wanted more than to hand over his ball to this stranger.

The other two boys deposited their bikes on the grass. The girl –- with a high, round forehead and straight blond hair parted in the middle –- remained seated on her bike, wrists dangling over the handlebars, silently watching.

“You new around here?” the boy asked. He dribbled the ball a little awkwardly, his skills unrefined.

Eric nodded. Yes, he was new. Eric sensed that he’d have to be careful; this encounter could go either way. It could turn out okay, or go very bad. Threat hung in the air, though no one had said or done anything wrong. It was just a feeling Eric got. A knot in his stomach.

The boy turned to the hoop and took a shot that clanged off the metal backboard and bounced away. He grinned and shrugged, eyes smiling. “I’m not really one of those basketball guys,” he explained. “My name’s Griffin. Most everybody calls me Griff.”

“I’m Eric.”

Griffin gestured toward the school building. “You gonna go to school here? What grade you in?”

“Yeah,” Eric answered. “Seventh.”

“Lucky you.”

One of the other boys, the heavy, raw-knuckled one, snorted, “You any good at homework? We could use somebody to do our homework.”

The hatchet-faced boy laughed. His large front teeth protruded slightly, and his black hair was limp and ragged. Eric instinctively disliked him. Weasel, he thought.

Griffin smiled at Eric. “Don’t pay any attention to these guys,” he said. “They think they’re funny. Anything for a laugh, right, Cody?”

The ugly one, all beaked nose and buckteeth, blew a bubble and let it burst. “Good times,” he chirped. “Good times.”

“I feel sorry for you,” Griffin said to Eric. “You move here — and all we’ve been trying to do is figure out how to break out of this place!”

Griffin had a way about him, a certain kind of natural leadership that Eric respected. Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning. Eric felt almost envious; Griffin seemed to possess a quality he lacked, a presence.

“So, tell us,” Griffin continued, commanding the court. “Why did you move here?”

“Well, it wasn’t my idea,” Eric confessed. “My parents . . . sort of . . .”

He trailed off. Better keep that part to himself.

“You don’t talk a lot, do you,” Griff noted.

Eric tilted his head, shrugged, embarrassed.

“He’s a shy boy!” the big one squealed.

“Shut up, Drew P.,” Griff said. “Get me that ball, will ya?”

And Drew P. got him the ball.

“Droopy, Droo-pee,” Cody chimed in a mocking, singsong voice.

“Get a life,” Droopy snapped back.

Griffin shook his head, as if the dialogue disappointed him. He explained to Eric, “His name is Drew Peterson. The other day we started calling him ‘Droop’ and ‘Droopy.’ Get it: Drew P.” Griffin smiled. “I don’t think he’s crazy about it.”

Eric didn’t respond, just listened and nodded.

Griffin weighed the ball in one hand. “You mind if we keep this?”


“The ball, Eric,” Griffin said. “You don’t mind if I keep it for a while, do you? As a souvenir?”

“Yep, yep, yep!” Cody chirped.

Eric started to answer. “I, um –-“

“Um . . . what?” Griffin interrupted, his face a mask now, hard to read. “You think maybe you have a choice?”

The two other boys moved a little closer to Eric, one on each side. They seemed to grow in stature. A little taller, a little fiercer, the way a dog looks when its hackles are raised.

Eric did the math. Three against one, not counting the girl. She wasn’t doing anything, just standing by, watching.

No, no choice, Eric thought. No choice at all.


Excerpted from Bystander by James Preller. Copyright © 2009 by James Preller. Published in 2009 by Feiwel and Friends. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


  1. Kurtis says:

    I don’t really get the aversion to adverbs so many writers have.

  2. Liz S says:

    So interesting that you had a copyeditor inserting adverbs. This strikes me as intrusive. I think whatever you set out to do with the voice of a book is how it flows — and obviously, in many cases, the adverbs work. But in this case, the mood would’ve been – what? – interrupted? I confess I bought the voice in Bystander entirely; if memory serves, it didn’t occur to me to insert adverbs. That’s a big sign the voice just worked.

  3. jimmy says:

    To be clear, I don’t think adverbs are “bad” or necessarily wrong, though lately I’ve been a little put off by them in some things I’ve read. For younger readers — the Jigsaw Jones crowd — I’ve used them to aid comprehension. For Bystander, I was after a different tone.

    I remember reading an article about the third Peter Gabriel LP, this must be the early 80’s, when he instructed his drummer, Jerry Marotta, to avoid any use of cymbals. He took that took — or, at times, crutch — away from his percussionist. It forced Marotta to rethink his drum patterns, to drum differently. And by doing so, it contributed to the new sound Gabriel was after. For whatever reason, that concept stuck with me across almost 30 years.

    I’m not a big one for rules, generally speaking. But I do think adverbs can be overused. So for this specific book, I was particularly careful about them. And for dialogue, I’ve been striving to place all the emphasis on the spoken parts, rather than the tags. That’s why I like “said” so much. It serves its function with minimal fuss.

    Again, it’s not so much a right or a wrong way. But it can be a distinctive, stylistic “way.” Next book might be different.

  4. Kurtis says:

    I agree the sparse town worked for bystander, it tied in with the idea of being a witness and just seeing things happen.

    BTW, the story would have more power if Gabriel’s work from the seventies wasn’t one hundred times better than his work in the 80s! Solsbury Hill vs. Sledgehammer? No contest. (But I do see the moral of the story.)

  5. Kurtis says:

    P.S. town = tone.

  6. jimmy says:

    I think it’s also a “show, don’t tell” issue. If you feel a need to insert the adverb “kindly” before “said,” for example, it may be that you didn’t do a good enough job showing it in the first place.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Kurtis. Thanks for stopping by, reading this, and responding. I really appreciate it.

  7. dre says:

    how many chapters are in the novel?

  8. Ferlie says:

    I love this book! I had to read it for school and it was so heart touching and I just loved every bit of it!

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