Sorry about no post today (Wednesday). Traveling and had no access. Back on the air Friday.
From the Words section of section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells: “Adverbs: good? Bad? Yes.”
Here’s a simple-minded example of one of the reasons adverbs can be the bane of writing for effect. This is fundamental stuff, and I don’t mean to insult you…I just want to contrast effect to info. A story starts with this:
Jimmy walked slowly across the cluttered room.
Simple information. I see, fuzzily, a guy walking. Not very fast (but I can’t really picture it). There’s stuff in the room (but who knows what).
The effect? Not much. No clear picture comes to mind. First thing to do: ditch the verb/adverb combo and choose a verb that evokes a picture, at the least, and at best characterizes the action. If, for example, your story is suspense, then how about…
Jimmy crept across the cluttered room.
Better. Here are other possibilities, depending on the story:
- In a fight scene, Jimmy would have lunged across the room.
- If Jimmy is a dancer, then he glided.
- Make Jimmy a burglar and he skulked.
- If Jimmy is in no hurry, then he ambled.
- If Jimmy is in a hurry, then he dashed.
- If Jimmy has been over-served at a bar, then he weaved. Or maybe he tottered, or staggered, or lurched, or, my personal favorite, sloshed.
Each of those verbs evokes a picture of Jimmy’s body moving in specific ways. They are “visual” verbs that created a specific effect in your mind.
Stimulus > response.
There’s another bit of lazy writing in the example sentence—the adjective “cluttered.” It did nothing to create a picture. At the very least, we should see what the room was cluttered with, e.g.:
Jimmy crept across a room cluttered with shrunken heads.
Ooooo. See how specificity stirs up story questions? Don’t you want more? What about the room? Is it dark? Any smells? Sounds? Is anyone else there? What about characterization? Put on Jimmy’s skin and…
He was glad that the light of his candle was dim—all those tiny faces staring up at him were entirely too creepy. He set a foot down and winced at a crunch. He froze, listening for sounds of renewed pursuit. But only the scurrying of rats troubled the air, musty with the dust of the dead.
Let’s get back to adverbs. There’s a reason adverbs rob you of effect.
Adverbs are telling
I believe that adverbs that modify action verbs are merely a form of telling. They are abstractions of action, pallid substitutes for the real thing, mere stand-ins. As a result, they rarely give the reader much of an experience. For example, one of my clients wrote,
She grinned mischievously.
Now, the average reader would take that in, plug in some sort of vague image, keep on rolling and never realize she had been cheated—but she was. There’s a much more lively and concrete picture to be created in the reader’s mind. For example:
She grinned, mischief sparking in her eyes.
In the original, because you have to interpret “mischievously” (what, exactly, is that?) the effect is to evoke an unsure image of a grin. In the second, you see a face in action: lips curve, you see a grin, you see eyes, you see playful activity behind those eyes. All that from four extra words chosen for effect. Or, hey, what about something like this…
She grinned like a fox that had just found the keys to the henhouse.
The third example goes beyond word choice to tap into meaning and characterization beyond a simple visual.
Watch out for adverbs in dialogue tags
Many writers use adverbs to explain dialogue rather than show how the dialogue is delivered. For example:
“This is my dialogue,” he said hesitantly.
That’s lazy use of an adverb. You could say something like. . .
He hesitated, then said, “This is my dialogue.”
But that’s not precisely what “said hesitantly” means, is it? There would be a hesitation in there somewhere. Wouldn’t it be more effective if we dramatized the hesitation so the reader experienced it rather than read about it? For instance, let’s show it this way:
“This. . .” He swallowed and glanced at her face. “. . . is my dialogue.”
Go on an adverb hunt and replace them with the action they only hint at and you’ll be writing for effect.
But not all adverbs are bad guys
I was reviewing one of my manuscripts the other day and spotted, gasp, an adverb. Here’s the sentence:
She saw Murphy, like a big, round boulder parting a stream of girly secretaries cramming in a buzz of noontime shopping—except this boulder stared blatantly at their bobbing chests as they passed.
“Stared blatantly?” Damn. Another case of making an adverb try to do the work of real description. To be fair, this was from my first novel, written several years ago, on the lower slopes of my learning curve.
In this case the answer lay, as usual, in the verb. I swapped out “stared blatantly” for “leered.” Much better, giving a clear picture with fewer words. While I was at it, I tightened the sentence a little, too:
She saw Murphy, like a big, round boulder parting a stream of girly secretaries cramming in a buzz of noontime shopping, leering at their bobbing chests.
And then I came upon a pair of adverbs in one sentence…
He found Emmaline to be annoyingly cheerful but pleasingly proficient.
But these adverbs worked for me. Wait, I thought, how come they seem right when I’ve preached loud and long to avoid adverbs? Then I noticed that these modified adjectives rather than verbs.
Good cholesterol and bad cholesterol?
There was a time when we believed that all cholesterol was bad. Then we learned that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.
Well, I changed my position that all adverbs are suspect, if not bad. I think there are “good” adverbs, the ones that add just the right flavor to an adjective, enhancing it with a more complete shade of meaning.
Consider the sentence describing Emmaline. Could I have achieved what I wanted, which was to give insight into one character’s feeling and attitudes toward another, without the adverbs?
He found Emmaline to be cheerful but proficient.
Nope. I’ve lost how the viewpoint character feels about Emmaline’s personality.
I went on a search for other adverbs (using Microsoft Word’s Find tool to locate “ly” in words).
Her fair cheeks fetchingly reddened by the cold, she looked no older than a teenager.
Yep, for me this works as well. It would have been okay to write. . .
Her fair cheeks reddened by the cold, she looked no older than a teenager.
. . .and you would have gotten a picture. But take “fetchingly” out and you lose the point-of-view character’s reaction to the girl’s cheeks. With the addition of the adverb to this adjective, you also get the character’s experience, i.e. his emotional reaction to the appearance he sees—fetching, attractive.
The pattern I was discovering seemed to be that adverbs are a positive addition when coupled to adjectives in order to add a point-of-view character’s nuance to what would otherwise be simple description. Another instance from the same manuscript:
He loved the Staffordshire blue-and-white rose pattern, beautifully detailed and botanically accurate right down to the thorns on the stems.
Take “beautifully” and “botanically” out of that sentence and I think it loses both meaning and flavor. Once more:
She changed her disguise to the queenly dignity of a white-haired society matron she’d met in Brussels.
Now, to “show” without the adverb would have required something like this:
She changed her disguise to that of a dignified, white-haired society matron with the manner of a queen, whom she’d met in Brussels.
Not as effective, is it?
Here’s an example taken from a client’s manuscript of a good adverb and bad adverb in the same sentence:
A young waiter with carefully streaked hair smiled suggestively at her.
For me, the first adverb expands the picture of the waiter’s hair by giving a hint of precision in the arrangement of the streaks, which tells me something about him as well. But I’d like to see the second adverb replaced with something more truly pictorial.
When you go hunting for adverbs, it’s when they modify action that you should consider looking for a better verb to do the job, and when they amplify adjectives that you may find adverbs to be good cholesterol.
For what it’s worth
© 2011 Ray Rhamey