Adverbs are essential to writing. They tell how things happen and to what extent. Without them, our ability to describe action and events would be greatly diminished.
Writing fiction is fairly easy. Writing good fiction that is memorable is another matter entirely. Quite often, the difference lies in the degree to which you can draw your readers into your words. Or, put another way, how real you make the reading experience for them. Adverbs can be useful tools toward that end. They can also clog the pathway to good writing.
As a writer, you have ultimate control over your readers’ vicarious experiences. Rich descriptions of both setting and action can help immerse your readers deeper into your story. Used judiciously, adverbs can define action and dialogue to help create vivid mental pictures.
Let’s use the following examples:
“Oh, just forget about it,” Bill said, walking quickly away.
“Oh, just forget about it,” Bill said, walking slowly away.
The two sentences present entirely different possibilities about Bill’s state of mind. Perhaps in example number one, he was agitated, or maybe he was happy or in a forgiving mood. What about example number two? Is it possible that Bill was too tired to argue, or too sad? You could derive the rest from the context. The point is, the adverb (just one well-placed word) made all the difference in how we perceived Bill’s mood.
There are times when using adverbs is appropriate. There are also occasions when it is not. Many editors frown on the use of adverbs as dialogue tags. Most books on good writing technique will tell you that the context in which your dialogue takes place should already be established by the action and setting. You should not need to qualify your dialogue with adverbs.
For example, in the following sentence, Bill is upset while he’s standing in a noisy sweatshop.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Bill shouted, angrily.
With the stage properly set, it would not have been necessary to include the last word of the sentence. Instead of using an adverb to establish that Bill was angry, we could have offered a visual description of his reaction to let our readers know.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Bill shouted over the din of the machinery, his face growing red. His fist landed hard, forming a large dent on the top of his toolbox.
In both examples, we know that Bill is upset. In the first one, we are simply told about it. In the second, we get to experience being angry right along with Bill. Which one is more memorable?
The power of adverbs can often be seductive, to the point where writers end up telling a story instead of showing it. Try a simple exercise. Pick a scene from your writing and rewrite it substituting action or description for as many adverbs as possible.
Let’s call on our friend Bill, again to show how this might be done. Which of these two passages enhances your own reading experience?
Bill walked clumsily to the door.
With a wave of his hand, he was off, across the room on unsteady legs. His first encounter with the furniture, accentuated by the sharp crack of his shin against the coffee table, sent him reeling against the sofa. Undaunted, Bill turned with an easy smile and hobbled to the door with as much dignity as he could salvage.
Another misuse of adverbs arises out of a writer’s zeal to appear clever. For most applications, one should refrain from using adverbs, real or invented, that would not normally be used in conversation. One can certainly grope blindly around in a darkened room. But, please abstain from having your characters make their way gropingly to safety. People should probably not act manipulatively, approach stealthily, question penetratingly or exist non-consanguineously within their families. And, please, don’t let anyone do anything impactfully.
If your writing relies heavily upon adverbs to convey moods, behavior, or disposition, perhaps a review is in order. You may find that by substituting action or dialogue for a few adverbs, you will greatly enhance the reader’s journey through your pages.
Cameron Michaels, author of Arena, is a fiction writer residing in Nashville, TN.