The Tragic Truth of Adverb Abuse
Caitlin, Archipelago Communications
24th August 2017
First things first, let’s clarify the official definition of “adverb”:
ad·verb: word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there).
Okay, now that that’s sorted – it’s time to dodge potential writing catastrophe by exposing adverbs for what they are. But first, let’s set the scene. After all, what did the adverb ever do to us? What exactly is wrong with an adverb? Is anything wrong with an adverb? Chances are you’ve heard Stephen King’s famous opinion on the matter by now; it’s no secret that he insists, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs”, which might get you wondering: why? Is Stephen King’s belief still the norm, or have times (and rules) changed? The answer to that is both yes and no. There is a certain etiquette to using adverbs in your writing – it’s not so much a matter of never using them, but of when to use them, and how often.
Pay attention to your adverb use when you are writing a story.
Rule of thumb
First and foremost, take care to avoid
To flush this out, please read the unspeakable tragedy of a short scene below. If you’re cringing before you’ve even made it halfway, or perhaps have to pause before finishing, in order to slip off to the bathroom and throw up out of pure horror, congratulations! Your understanding of adverb etiquette is better than you may have thought. But let’s highlight the offending descriptors anyway, just to make it as painful, and as obvious, as possible:
“There is a certain etiquette to using adverbs in your writing – it’s not so much a matter of never using them, but of when to use them, and how often. “
“Don’t leave,” she begs desperately, tears spilling relentlessly from her eyes. “Please, I love you so much!”
“I have no choice,” he tells her painfully, valiantly trying to mask his own emotions, but failing despairingly. “I have to go. I have to fight.”
“No, you don’t!” she cries furiously. Grabbing his arms, she holds on tightly, as if futilely trying to anchor him to her. “You don’t. Stay with me instead. We’ll run away together! It’ll be okay, you’ll see, I promise. We can go anywhere,” she adds insistently. “Anywhere you want. Please, Johnny. Please don’t leave me.” Desperate tears cling stubbornly to her eyelashes.
He reaches out and gently cups her face in his hands, steadily meeting her eyes. “I’ll come back, Annie. I’ll come back to you, I promise.”
She begins to sob
Horrible, right?! Hats off to you for making it through that. Now take a look at the same scene, rewritten without the excessive adverbs. See if you can appreciate the difference.
Study the use of adverbs via published authors.
“Don’t leave,” she begs, tears spilling from her eyes. “Please, I love you so much!”
“I have no choice,” he tells her, trying and failing to mask his own despair. “I have to go. I have to fight.”
“No, you don’t!” she cries. She grabs his arms as if to anchor him to her, but they both know the effort is futile. “You don’t. Stay with me instead. We’ll run away together! It’ll be okay, you’ll see, I promise. We can go anywhere,” she insists. “Anywhere you want. Please, Johnny. Please don’t leave me.” Desperate tears cling to her eyelashes.
He reaches out and cups her face in his hands, keeping his eyes steady on hers. “I’ll come back, Annie. I’ll come back to you, I promise.”
Choking back a sob, she tries to wrench herself out of his grip. He lets go only to pull her into his arms. She fights to escape, hands shoving at his chest with savage strength, but he holds his ground. At long last, she gives in, collapsing against him. Desolate, she buries her face in his shoulder. Closing his eyes, he kisses the top of her head and wishes things could be different.
See the difference? Remarkable, right? Sometimes less really is more. This is why you must be careful not to burden your scenes, your dialogue, and your characters with needless adverbs, because then, instead of striking emotion in your readers, you risk inducing uncontrollable eye rolls, or worse, losing them altogether.
However – keep in mind that so long as you respect adverb etiquette, you don’t have to avoid adverbs entirely. There is a way to reap their rewards, when used correctly (and not obsessively!) For instance, this line started as:
“He reaches out and gently cups her face in his hands, steadily meeting her eyes.”
It changed to this:
“He reaches out and cups her face in his hands, keeping his eyes steady on hers.”
But could also have been rearranged to this:
“He reaches out and gently cups her face in his hands, keeping his eyes steady on hers.”
Once in a while, an adverb can act as your friend! If you are certain that it is not detracting from the emotion in the scene, keep it. Trust your writer instincts; they’re more in tune than you might think.
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