Sunday, July 10, 2011

Attack of the Adverbs!

Show don't tell.
Adverbs tell, actions show.

Applying this concept is a huge way to improve your writing. My first reaction to this was denial. It didn't seem like using adverbs inhibited my writing too much, but then I saw the light (so to speak).

First off, a little reminder what an adverb is.
Adverb: a word or group of words that serves to modify a whole sentence, a verb, another adverb, or an adjective; for example, probably, easily, very, and happily respectively in the sentence.

So basically, an adverb is any word that ends in "-ly".


The whole point of writing is to engage your reader to tell a story, thus entertaining them, and possibly teaching them something along the way. In order to engage your reader your words have to paint a mental picture, and make your reader feel like they're standing in the room with your characters. In order for this to happen you must leave the safety, and ease behind that comes with using adverbs.

Adverbs are commonly used after a dialogue tag, but are certainly not limited to that. Here's an example I took from some old drafts of mine of a adverb following a dialogue tag:

“He wants to take you hostage,” Stephan said hopelessly.

Now, I believed that I had showed this character, and how he felt pretty well. However, what does "hopelessly" really show me? It tells me how he feels, but I don't know how he looks or what he's doing. You should never modify "said" with an adverb. "Hopelessly" doesn't give me any mental picture, and therefore would fail to engage a reader.

Here's how I would do the rewrite to show how Stephan feels:

"He wants to take you hostage," Stephan said with a sigh. His body seemed to lose any willingness to stand up straight as he slumped into a rickety chair. Shoulders drooping like a wilted flower, he rested his chin in his hands and stared with glossed over eyes at the floor.

Now this certainly isn't perfect, and is a little melodramatic, but you see the difference between the two passages. You get a much better image, and his feeling of hopelessness from how he acts instead of me telling you that he simply feels hopeless.

That pretty much covers adverbs in dialogue, but what about adverbs in sentences?
Again, adverbs should be avoided within sentences also. Adverbs tell reader how events are being played out, as opposed to showing which is want we want to do. I'd like to show you another example of the difference between showing and telling, but this time with an adverb that modifies an action.

Again, this is an example I choose from an old draft of mine:

I struggled anxiously with the buttons at the back of my fancy dress.

As you can see, I used the adverb "anxiously" in this sentence, which doesn't show the reader what's going on, it tells. I've already explained why telling is a bad thing, so avoid being redundant, I'm going to get right into the rewrite.

My palms were sweating as I reached for the line of buttons up the back of my dress. My roaming fingers found there mark, but slipped off the tiny button in my haste to unfasten it. Biting my lip, I tried again. I grasped the button and shoved it through the tiny hole then moved onto the next one. Tapping my foot at a steady rhythm I hurried through the row until I was finally freed from the constraining grip of the gown.

Again, the second passage shows the reader the character's anxiety much better than just straight out telling it. As a side note, I do realize that "finally" is considered an adverb. However, using adverbs isn't against the "law" of writing, they just shouldn't be used frequently.

In conclusion, the main points that I'm trying to get across are these:
-Showing is better than telling, because showing creates a mental picture
-Adverbs tell
-You should never modify "said" or any other dialogue tag with an adverb
-Use adverbs very rarely if at all in writing

That pretty much sums it up! Although, I'm curious, how often do use adverbs in your writing? And are you planning to edit them out? Feel free to comment (if you're shy you can comment anonymously) or vote in the pole with your answers!

P.S. To give credit where credit is due, this post is basically a rehashing (with some of my own ideas added) of this post.

P.P.S. I also used the Bookshelf Muse's emotional thesaurus which lists things people do when they feel x emotion. Check it out it's awesome! It's in the sidebar on the right had side.

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