Admittedly this piece may come off as glibly written, and I suppose I’m intentionally doing so. But I’m really starting to look closely at the idea that adverbs are inherently bad, or automatically make writing worse. Certainly there is a reason for the existence of the adverb, and obviously they can be overused. (I mean really, really, really overused.) But should the sins of some writers force all writers to systematically, irreverently, totally do away with the adverb?
Okay, I’ve made my point, but it’s something that has been on my mind a lot lately. (There it is again.)
I’m a big supporter of the adverb. No, I don’t think you should put “really” four times in a sentence. In fact there are the “Egregious Adverbs”, as I call them, which would be “really”, “very”, “mostly” and so on, which actually do, in almost every case, weaken language.
But take into consideration other usages of adverbs, and you’ll begin to see my point.
Imagine with me, if you will, a tall woman with black hair in a white dress. Doesn’t matter what she looks like, just imagine her however you wish. She’s standing on a road and there’s a mailbox about ten feet in front of her. It’s autumn. Just because I like autumn. Got it?
Okay. Now. Consider this sentence.
“She walked towards the mailbox, anticipating its contents.”
What do you see?
“She walked furiously towards the mailbox, bitterly anticipating its contents.”
Well that’s different, isn’t it? Let’s play again.
“She walked gracefully towards the mailbox, happily anticipating its contents.”
Very different picture, right? Come on, one more time.
“She walked hesitantly towards the mailbox, nervously anticipating its contents.”
It’s the same picture, but it’s not. We start at the same place every single time. Same woman. Same setting. Same mailbox. What is it that makes the scene so vivid? The adverbs.
Adverbs, when used correctly, are to literature as solvent is to a dirty painting. (Disclaimer: I know nothing about art restoration, so it may not actually be solvent, I was just throwing in a word for “cleaner”. 🙂 ) There’s a beautiful picture underneath, a vivid scene, but without the adverbs all you see is a woman walking towards a mailbox.
Chances are it makes a big difference to the story whether or not she’s walking furiously, walking gracefully, or walking hesitantly. The adverbs can easily transform this scene from a woman just checking the mail to a woman about to get a really irritating piece of mail, a woman getting a love letter, or a woman getting something rather disconcerting…perhaps a diagnosis. Perhaps a tarantula. We don’t know.
But we do know, thanks to the adverbs, that she’s hesitant and nervous.
Now, someone will argue (probably Steven King), that you could have said “She stormed” instead of “She walked furiously”. That’s a fair point. In some cases adverbs can be replaced with a more efficient and powerful word, and in that case, go for it! Adjectives, ho! Verbs, ho!
But in a vast majority of cases, I’ve found that adverbs are a clarifying agent. They sharpen the focus of the mental picture the author is trying to paint, activate the reader’s senses, and award characters with attributions they may not have otherwise had.
In my recent short story, Beyond the Veil, (which is free until Dec. 29 *cough*), you’ll notice that Elizabeth replied coolly, leaned nonchalantly, and crossed her arms. Sure, she could have replied, leaned, and crossed her arms. But she wouldn’t have come across as the villainous, contemptuous, slightly arrogant woman she is without those adverbs. You get a much clearer picture of how she did things thanks to adverbs, and once you know how she’s doing things, you know more of who she is and can see the scene more clearly. (Or, if you’re developing an eye twitch over my use of adverbs, in greater detail.)
That is my defense of adverbs. I happily, joyfully, merrily wish you the best of holidays, during which I hope you ravenously devour the carefully cooked meal you excitedly look forward to all year long. 😀
Until next time, happy writing!
(Feel free to sound off in the comments: adverbs, or no adverbs?)