A bit of a random one today, but it is something that comes up a lot in both my own work and works I critique for others. Today I want to talk about adverbs. What they are, why they matter, how they should be used, and why I believe they are abused in modern fiction.
I want to start off by saying they are just too easy to abuse. They simplify the task of describing actions and take away from some of the more concrete adjectives that could and should be used to not only improve upon your story but add layers of complexity to the narrative tone.
What is an adverb? Well in this case I am talking about words that were previously adjectives or qualities and modifying them to be used as verbs. Things like, amazingly, arrogantly, badly, beautifully, blindly, bravely, and crossly. The list is endless really.
Adverbs are important; sometimes they are absolutely necessary. (See what I did there?) They are vital in describing certain things, and keeping the flow and rhythm of a piece going smooth. As I mentioned in my show don’t’ tell article some writers make the mistake of removing a habit entirely in a blind attempt at improving. That approach doesn’t work out too well in the long run. Good writing is about finding balance. Not just between showing and telling, and the amount of adverbs you use in a piece, but through everything. You need a certain synergy between all of your words. A constant flow.
Adverbs can and have been used to great effect. It is just when you enter the realm of overusing them or using them in abundance does it become a problem. It is jarring to read an entire scene where everything is described with adverbs. A lot of the time they are unnecessary. Adjectives can and should speak for themselves, and often times there are far better ways of describing a scene. That’s where finding the proper balance comes in.
Think of it as flow versus description. Sometimes a complex description is not called for when writing a scene. Fight scenes or high action scenes are prime examples of this, the narrator doesn’t have a lot of time to process all the details of the situation, so describing everything in complex and intricate ways would only prove to slow down the pacing. Whether an adverb would be best suited to this situation is up to you as a writer.
The small scene below is an example of an overuse of adverbs:
The man smiled merrily, and walked jauntily down the boulevard with a bag of envelopes slung over his shoulder. His boots scraped against the ground loudly as he moved, the act leaving deep impressions in the muck. He smiled boyishly as he bravely walked out into the cold winter weather. He briefly glanced over his shoulder and looked directly at a girl who was working at the market stall that day.
All of my examples seem to be silly and over the top this far, but I’ve seen situations like this happen in a lot in works I’ve helped critique and edit for others. The adverb is overused and abused. People too often mistake it for good description.
The way I would write the scene above would go something like this:
The man had a boyish smile that was a bit too big for his face; in fact everything about the boy was bigger than it ought to have been. A big nose, big lips, even big eyes. He walked down the boulevard with a bag of envelopes slung over his wide shoulders. His boots scraped against the ground leaving deep impressions in the muck, his footfalls echoing down the lane. He braved the crisp winter morning without a care in the world. He almost always enjoyed these mid-morning walks. It was just him alone with the world for a brief few moments before the shops would fill themselves and noise would dominate all. He tossed a glance over his shoulder and locked gazes with a girl who was just opening shop for the day at a market stall with a red flag hanging above it. She smiled at him, and offered an excited wave…
I cannot claim to be the best writer, but I try my best to watch my adverb use. It’s like counting calories. It is something you have to think about actively; else you are liable to let too many of them slip in between the cracks without even realizing it.
Next time you go to write a piece, think about making it the best you possibly can. Too many adverbs in descriptive prose can really jar the reader out of the context of the scene and break the immersion you want your readers to cling to. If someone isn’t immersed in a story they probably aren’t going to keep reading it.
Total adverb count in article: 25 (Keep in mind the majority of these were done as examples)
Total words in article: Approximately 850
C. A. Guillory