Friday, July 17, 2009

Those Pesky Adverbs Again

Honestly, you'd think I'd get over this obsession about adverbs, but I just can't help myself, especially when I keep seeing their misuse over and over in books.

Like many beginning writers, I used adverbs liberally when first starting out. I thought they were needed to tell the reader how someone was speaking or how they were acting. Then the light bulb went off. "Geesh, Maryann, it's about showing, not telling."

About the same time, I was taking a screenwriting class and learned that it was a huge no-no to use an adverb to indicate how a line was to be spoken. For instance:

Get the hell out of my room.

My creative writing instructor told the class that it's not the writer's place to tell the actor how to speak - that's the director's job. And we can help the actor and director by writing a line of dialogue that conveys the urgency. The words should indicate how the line should be delivered.

Once I got that through my thick skull regarding screenplays, it was easy to see how it translated into novel and short story writing. We have to work really hard to make the words in a line of dialogue show the reader the emotion and inflection behind those words.

If that example from above was in a novel it would simply read, "Get the hell out of my room," Mike said. I chose not to even say "shouted" because the shout is implied. Or it might be even better to give Mike an action after his line that conveys his emotion.
"Get the hell out of my room." Mike shoved his sister toward the door, then slammed it when she was out.

The reason I'm back kicking these poor adverbs to pieces is that I recently received a book to review, and the author is in love with adverbs. Every character opens doors gently, speaks gently, or touches a shoulder softly.

I was hanging in with the story until I came to this sentence: "(character name withheld) gently lifted (name deleted) in her arms and rocked her gently".

That stopped me cold, and I reread the sentence to make sure it wasn't my dyslexia that put the same adverb in the sentence twice.

Nope. The author did it.

Which doesn't mean adverbs are to be avoided at all costs. There is a time and place for them, as illustrated in this quote from another book: "Then he saw the white flag of the deer's tail as it bounded away, and he nearly collapsed with relief."

The author couldn't leave the "nearly" out, as the character would not have literally collapsed, especially since this was a very tense moment in the story where this character was being trailed by a killer.

I hope these examples are helpful for writers who are working on first or second books and may be still unsure of when an adverb is needed and when it is not.

For more on adverbs see previous posts HERE


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. Good points here. When editors reject a WIP for telling-not-showing, I'm sure there's a document rife with adverbs.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Wonderful post.

    I'm editing my (first) novel before sending it out and I'm finding many examples of my own work in the 'gently' style and tearing my hair out with frustration at my apparent short-sightedness!

  3. Another great post.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  4. Keep reminding us, Maryann. One of an author's passes through a manuscript should focus just on adverbs. We're all guilty of overuse.

    Straight From Hel

  5. Excellent post!

    I think another big problem in the showing/telling category is using redundant adverbs: "He ran quickly," "He yelled loudly," etc.

    Thanks, too, for acknowledging there are exceptions to the rule. I'm so tired of people telling me I can't use adverbs because they've read that rule in a book.

  6. Eish! Painful reading that post. I've learned screenwriting on the job and with three complete drama series I must say sheepishly- I always direct actors with adverbs. I suppose that means they all hate me- so be it.

    This dearth of adverbs is causing much concern right now. I'm working on a junior secondary Entglish textbook and desperately need a piece of writing laden with adverbs for teaching about adverbs. They are a scarce, commodity out there I can assure you.

  7. Good point well illustrated. Thanks

  8. I'm now telling the beginning writers I work with to do a Word search on the letters ly in their completed manuscripts. When forced to view them one after another, one adverb at a time, writers get it.

  9. Wonderful post and yes,very helpful. Thanks.

  10. And shouldn't those -ly adverbs be placed before the verb? Not dangling?

    We need another post about adjectives. Those can be overdone as well, and we need constant reminders to remain spare in our writing. It's too easy to mask a weak, insipid, colorless story with wordy, elaborate, over-the-top and completely tiresome embellishments.


    Okay, I'm going back to my corner now. LOL.


  11. Thanks for all the comments and kind words about the post. Glad that I have not sent folks running off and screaming "That woman needs a valium."

    Kit, I had to chuckle at your comment. How do you think I learned about adverbs. Some of my early work was so full of adverbs I could cut a story by a third just getting rid of them. And I really do think we all tend to put them in when we are just getting the story down. Then in the second draft and subsequent editing we are challenged to do better.

  12. Yep, my proof reader (worth every dollar and then some) was on top of this. Too many redundancies. So she sliced and diced and hacked and sawed through my overuse of adverbs. A bloody mess when she was finished, but a much more refined manscript too.

    Stephen Tremp

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