Emotional Subcontractors: Working with Adverbs

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Everyone hates on adverbs.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.

When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?

Replace redundant adverbs.

She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.

But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.

She thumped her coffee on the counter.

Skip the “duh” adverbs.

If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.

Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:

Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)

Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.

Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:

“Tell me right now!” she said quickly.

Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.

As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:

RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?

SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.

Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)

Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.

 “That’s him,” she said accusingly.

Instead:

“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.

“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.

“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”

With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:

He turned angrily and raised his fist.

He whipped around, his fist raised.

He spun, his fist raised.

Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.

He smiled bitterly.

They ran haltingly.

She danced jerkily.

Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”

In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:

Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.

The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.

Plumb the adverbs in your own work:

1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?

2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.

3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.

Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.

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