WHEN DIANE WALTON AND I CONDUCTED our Live Action Editing panel last weekend at When Words Collide in Calgary, one of the comments that came up was concerning the use of adverbs. Adverbs have been discussed many times and in many books and blogs, most recently, to my notice, by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. King goes on at length about how adverbs are unnecessary and a sign of fearful or lazy writing.
I think most people are divided on this issue. Some folks insist that adverbs are anathema, while others maintain they aren’t. I use adverbs, but I use them sparingly and only if they serve a purpose. I agree with King when he points out how adverbs can actually weaken the meaning of a sentence. If we want to write tightly, they can be clutter, as shown in the following example:
“Get out of there,” Anna said nervously.
“I’m not going to fall,” Jason replied carelessly.
“You’ll break your neck,” Anna insisted loudly.
“Give it a rest. I’m fine,” Jason replied testily.
For me, the ‘ly’ endings grate on the ear. They create a repetition that gets in the way of the story, drawing focus on themselves when the reader should be involved in the plot. Further, the dialogue can be tightened; once the players are established, there’s no reason to indicate who is speaking each time. The ‘said, replied, insisted’ might be replaced with action or body language.
Here’s a better way to write the above scene:
“Get out of there.” Anna’s face was tight. Her lips formed a hard line. Why does he always push my buttons? she wondered.
“I’m not going to fall.” Jason leaned further, dangling over the precipice. A clump of dirt slid from the cliff’s side, disappearing into thin air.
“You’ll break your neck.” She clawed at his shirt.
“Give it a rest. I’m fine.” Jason threw off her hand.
Of course, the above example could be tightened even further, but it does illustrate how adverbs can get in the way. That said, sometimes adverbs are necessary. Take this example:
Anna laughed nervously.
In this case, I would keep nervously, because it modifies laughed in such a way that using laughed alone can’t. Depending on the context, I might replace laughed nervously with a single verb, but I would have to choose one that comes closest to my meaning. In this case, tittered, chortled, and sniggered don’t.
The modifier very is another word that people treat as if it’s some kind of writing sin. In most cases I’d agree that it’s unnecessary. On the other hand, if very is used in dialogue and reflects the speaker and his context, I use it. Here’s both a wrong way and a right way to use it:
He moved very quietly down the hall.
A better way of putting this might be 'he tiptoed down the hall' or 'he passed down the hall, making no sound'. Compare this with how I use ‘very’ from a scene in The Tattooed Seer. Joachín is taking Miriam away from the Tribe, so they might spend their second night as a married couple together. He sets the idea of discovery in her mind, which is both a risk and a turn-on:
“There is a sheltered cove, up ahead. I’ve left a blanket there.”
He had planned ahead? She wasn’t sure which roused her more—that he had done so, or that they had no tent to cover them.
“But won’t someone see?”
“The Tribe won’t spy on us.”
“But what if a fishing boat goes by?”
He regarded her somberly. “If it does, we’ll have to be very still, hardly moving. It’s dark. We’ll blend in with the sand. If anyone glances our way, they’ll have a hard time seeing us. On the other hand, once the moon rises, we might cast shadows. If we sweat, our bodies will gleam. Hopefully, no one’s out there. But if they are, we’ll have to take our chances.”
I could delete ‘very’, but I like how it modifies ‘still’. Even more, I like Joachín’s reason for using 'very'. He’s hoping to appear cautious, when that isn’t his aim at all.
Bottom line: with adverbs and other modifiers, write cleanly, specifically, and make every word do its job. (Note: if I didn't use the adverbs cleanly and specifically to modify 'write', my meaning would be different.) Make sure your adverbs don't get in the way of the plot's flow. Use them sparingly, when they contribute to character, or if they're an aspect of your voice or personal writing style.
Next post: Guest Interview with Michell Plested, YA author of 'Mik Murdoch, Boy Superhero'.