The Danger of Adverbs
You’ve gotta be a writer if you’d be willing to read a posts about adverbs. I tried to stir up a little drama by calling them dangerous but even I don’t think it umps the interest all that much.
What is an adverb?
Somewhere along the line, English teachers quit teaching grammar. I don’t know if they decided to release time for Higher Things or they got bored doing it. And grammar is kind of boring. Possibly, you can make the argument that readers don’t need grammar but writers need to know a bit.
So, for those of you who had progressive English teachers, an adverb often ends in ‘ly’ and typically describes how an action is done. ‘He said it tauntingly.’ ‘She moved slowly.’ ‘He grinned weakly.’
Here’s a paragraph with adverbs.
She looked at him scornfully. “You really expect me to believe that?”
“It’s true!” he said defensively.
“No way you were there,” she said emphatically.
“I was so!” he said angrily.
Not deathless prose but other than that, what’s so bad about using adverbs?
Adverbs are short-hand and second-hand emotion
First of all, you might not have needed any of the adverbs above. Read it again without them.
She looked at him. “You really expect me to believe that?”
“It’s true!” he said.
“No way you were there.”
“I was so!”
Don’t you think the dialogue gets across all the emotions used in the adverbs? I certainly get the anger, defensiveness and scorn. Sometimes you don’t need them because what you wrote already makes it clear. And doesn’t the scene move faster without them (added bonus—you can drop a couple of ‘said’s)?
But secondly, and more importantly, adverbs can be an emotional short-hand. Instead of showing the protagonist being angry (e.g. shouting, throwing something, talking through gritted teeth) you just assure the reader that he is by using ‘angrily.’ This doesn’t allow the reader to judge for himself and can also diminish the force of the emotion by encapsulating it in one word.
When it is okay to use adverbs?
Having said that, adverbs can be appropriate. If the scene or character is incidental to the plot, it may not be worth dramatizing every emotion and that’s where an adverb like ‘angrily’ can be used effectively. In fact, dramatizing every emotion of every character can clog up the story with unneeded and therefore boring explorations into psyches we fundamentally are not meant to care all that much about.
But when the character and/or the plot point is important, take the time to show the emotion. In fact, I think the pinnacle of writing about emotion is when you show it so well that you don’t have to name it. The character can hang her head, be silent, cry, and her shoulders can droop. You can convey sadness without having to have either you or the character name it. But the reader gets it. Much more effective dramatically.
So, adverbs are okay but beware of making them your default position. Slow yourself down enough to identify when you are dealing with an important emotional moment in your story and show it to your readers.