Options. We all like options in life. We also like good writing. So let’s take a look at some adverbs and consider what they are used for, and how we can improve what we write by avoiding them.
Adverbs are verb modifiers. Like adjectives to nouns, adverbs provide additional information about the verb to the reader. They’re relatively innocuous in that sense. But!
“When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow.” -Stephen King, on adverb use
It’s like this. One adverb is not a problem. Two adverbs are not a problem. Seven per page is a problem. And like weeds, once there’s one adverb, more tend to start sprouting all over the place.
Adverbs are sneaky in that they give the writer the impression that emotional content is being provided to the reader. The problem is, adverbs are like empty calories. They’re not providing emotional content; they’re describing emotional reactions. The reader doesn’t want to know how someone says something; the reader wants to know why someone says something. Let’s take a look at some examples.
“I don’t want to go,” Charlotte said, seriously.
In this case, the writer is suggesting that Charlotte has strong feelings about not wanting to go. But the adverb only explains that Charlotte said something in a serious (or non-joking) tone. It doesn’t explain why Charlotte feels the way she does. For this example, let’s expand the dialogue to provide a reason.
“I don’t want to go,” Charlotte responded. “The last time I tried to walk in the staff called the police.”
The expanded dialogue provides the reader with a reason why Charlotte doesn’t want to go. In addition—as with most cases when the writer dumps an adverb for an explanation—the reader also knows how the statement was made, since the tone is implied by the reason. The reader hears the delivery of the statement in her or his mind when provided a reason. This is part of how we read, and connects with the concept of “reader templates” explored in a separate post. Let’s take a look at another example:
Ray held my hand gently.
This suggests to the reader that Ray is feeling a positive emotion toward the character. After all, people don’t gently hold hands with people they don’t like. But a much stronger way of delivering that emotional content is by explanation:
Ray took my hand in his, caressing it as he had often done when we were still married.
In this revised version, we’re substituting a caress for that gentle hold. We then add backstory (marriage) that provides further context for what emotions are involved. We’re also adding the complication of the idea that the two are no longer married, which then brings up the question about what the two may be feeling now. In other words, we’re packing in a range of emotions, and describing story possibilities. Here’s one more example:
“I’m tired of fighting,” Lewis responded, wearily.
This suggests that the fighting—whatever kind of fight it may be—has been going on for some time, and explains that Lewis is tired of it. But being weary is only a description of a physical state. Let’s say that in this case we’re talking about disagreements with his brother. Here’s one idea for an expanded version that adds story rather than simply explains a physical state:
“I’m tired of fighting,” Lewis responded, ready to finally end the useless feud that had kept he and his brother apart since their parents had died.
Think of adverbs as stage directions for actors. Actors are supposed to come up with motivation for their characters. But as I’ve said before, a novel isn’t a screenplay. The only actors the writer has to work with are the ones in her or his head, and the only way to provide the motivation is by describing it to the reader.
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