We’ve all heard it: Avoid adverbs at all cost. While I’m never a fan of speaking in terms of “rules” when it comes to fiction writing—the “rules” of fiction writing tend to bend—this one I’d strongly recommend paying attention to. For starters, breaking the rules just for the sake of it is bound to backfire (see my article on breaking the ‘rules’ of grammar in creative fiction, which discusses writing with purpose).
First, let me address one thing to the nay-sayers: yes…they can work…but they usually don’t. The problem isn’t necessarily that they’re used; it’s that there is most often a better way. That and they’re a lot like mice. Once you see one, there’s bound to be many others.
Let’s get to the nuts and bolts. What’s the big deal with adverbs? Why do so many people have a bug up their butts about them?
For starters, it’s usually better to allow the reader to apply the mood or emotion, themselves. You’d be amazed at how adept the human brain is at filling in gaps—and this goes for storylines and scenes, as well. For instance, I’ve read about evidence that suggests that we don’t dream out entire scenes, but rather glimpses of scenes and that our brains naturally fill in the strings of thought to make some sense of it. Our brain does this with everyday life, too. We are fantastic at making assumptions, which is why we can process so many things so quickly. It’s important to remember to use this to your advantage.
Take this example. Let’s say you are standing in your living room minding your own business when your roommate or spouse or someone important to you walks in and says, “How could you?” before walking out.
Now, how do you suppose you know that person is actually mad at you? Do you think he/she is likely to walk in and say, “How could you? I’m saying this angrily!” Probably not. Nope—you can make the presumption that the person is angry with you because of the words he/she uses, that they’re said with a glare, with a sharp tone, and that the person went so far as to slam the door when he/she left the room. In other words, it’s the context that tells you, and that’s why adverbs are often thought of as lazy or timid writing, because using them can suggest that you either haven’t spent the effort in painting this context, or that you don’t trust your ability to have made your point. Either way, you risk losing the reader more than if you trust yourself and focus on the context within the scene.
It’s the difference between bringing the reader into the scene and simply explaining what’s happening in the scene. Or better, the difference between telling someone what goes into flying a plane and throwing them into a simulator. Most readers read fiction to escape, and if you’re not bringing them into your world, you’re not helping them accomplish this feat.
Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, hits the nail on the head, I think.
Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me…but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?
Here’s the deal, I’ve read lots of blog posts from aspiring novelists that slam the notion that avoiding adverbs altogether is the way to go. Their claim? That there is a place for adverbs if used properly. To that, I say: Sure. Occasionally. I suppose, yes. The caveat, however, is that you need to be able to find points where using them is most effective, and more often than not you’re wrong in your assessment of that. Even if you are able to identify the right time and place to throw in an adverb, that doesn’t mean you’ll have the finesse to pull it off.
Or maybe you have that skillset. Maybe you’re one of the few who can make them work on a consistent basis. But it’s still a risk, one that usually does reap much of a reward. Most nay-sayers will lump themselves in this category. I’d question if they’re being completely honest with themselves, however.
For the rest of you/us, this isn’t a knock on you; you’re dealing with a difficult-to-use tool that isn’t as robust in features as you may have thought. You’re duct taping things together to make it work. In the end, is that duct tape really going to hold those walls better than nails?
So go ahead and insert those adverbs. I won’t stop you. Just remember, the question isn’t whether or not you can do it, but whether or not there’s a better, more effective way.
Adverbs ought to be avoided when possible or, at the very least, ought to be the exception and not the rule. In either case, challenge yourself to train your eye to identify better and more effective writing practices when painting the scenes in your novel.
To further this discussion, here are some other related articles that might interest you: