Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Which I Risk Being Charged With Heresy

by Stephanie Black

Adverbs seem to be the sin du jour. If you hang around in writing circles, you’ve probably heard criticism leveled at adverbs or at books that use a lot of them. The thinking is that adding an adverb to a dialog tag is weak—that instead of the adverb, you need to strengthen the dialog, or clarify the emotion of the statement in some other way. That’s good as far as it goes, but I feel like the whole adverb thing is starting to seem a little witch-hunty. Adverbs! Bad! Destroy them all!

I don’t think we need to take it that far. Here’s my opinion (if you’re squeamish, you might want to look away):

Sometimes it’s okay to use adverbs to modify dialog tags.

For anyone out there who hasn’t fainted in horror, I’ll elaborate. In writing a novel, you want vivid, punchy prose. You want variety in constructions, variety in words, variety in sentence lengths. Words have music. And sometimes, if that adverb hits just the note you want, use it. The key is to use it deliberately, because it compliments the rhythm of your writing and says something important, not because your local dictionary had –ly words on sale ten for a dollar. Don’t use an adverb out of laziness. Use it when you conclude that it’s the best way to add punch, variety, or nuance to that particular tag.

Don’t use an adverb if it’s describing something the reader already understands. If a character is standing there, red-faced, with her hands on her hips, verbally ripping another character apart, you don’t need to point out that she’s speaking “angrily.” The reader will get it. Unnecessary adverbs need to get trimmed from your novel just like any other kind of wordy blubber.

In conclusion: if you're going to use an adverb, make sure it compliments the rhythm of your scene and that it adds something. Adverbs aren't automatically bad. Any form of speech can be used for good or evil. Used well and used sparingly, adverbs can be good.

That's all for today. I've got to get to work on that edit. And yeah, I just might have an adverb or two in there, she said gleefully.


At 5/20/2009 1:41 PM, Anonymous Jordan McCollum said...

Applause, applause. I hate "rules" like that one, especially since another "rule" is that you can NEVER EVER EVER use anything other than "said" as a dialogue tag. (And then some people jump all over you if you ever repeat any other word, even if you do it for effect.)

At 5/20/2009 3:05 PM, Blogger Liana Brooks said...

Rules are only there so you think before you break them.

I'll use an adverb if that's what fits. And if people don't like it, they can translate the book to Latin.

At 5/20/2009 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adverbs as a tag that tells emotion. Bad idea. As a tag that modifies the quality of the speech. Go for it.

She said angrily, happily, annoyingly, perversely, bitingly, jealously, harmoniously, defeatedly. If you use them in place of an emotion it may be a sign, a red flag if you will, of laziness, or weak dialogue, or weak description surrounding the dialouge, begging you to strengthen the weakness rather than excuse the adverb. Not always, but most of the time it is a good sign to watch for, a good cue as to when you're being lazy rather than rhythmicly inventive.

She said quietly, softly, quickly, repeatedly, loudly, stutteringly, staggeringly, disjointedly, sputteringly, spittleingly (that would be spit, not spite), stammeringly. If you use them to modify the actual speech, they may fit perfectly into the rhythm of your pros.

They also fit nicely into the rhythm of your non-dialogue pros, but they should, as you so wonderfully already explained, are best used by design in the run of exposition, the pause of description or the straighforwardness of narration.

There was simply no reason imaginable, no power on earth ivested with such authority to undermine the finely crafted pros of the greatest, most gifted author to sit before a computer screen and fervently proclaim her freedom from the adverb rule. None.

She went on her merry way rewritting adverbs into her past-deadline manuscript like so many unmeasrued raisins in a muffin mix. Free of any care until one day in late April, at the LDS storymaker's writing conference, her best author friend quietly suggested, in a hauntingly ghost-like tone, voiced more as a criticism than a friendly suggestion, that, "I really think you'd enjoy this class."

It was a three hour lecture on the evils of adverbially showing emotion, not telling it.


At 5/20/2009 6:49 PM, Blogger LexiconLuvr said...

I agree with you about the witch hunt for adverbs. Yes, you shouldn't litter your prose with them but I also think that sometimes it's appropriate. Being too wordy is just being too wordy.

At 5/20/2009 10:23 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Stephanie, I'm glad you said it. Many writers overuse adverbs, but declaring them verboten can be bad also.

At 5/21/2009 12:24 AM, Blogger Carolyn V. said...

Ohhh, I love your advice! I am deliciously, soaking it in (I know, made no sense whatsoever - I'm deliriously tired) =) Hee hee, couldn’t help myself!

At 5/21/2009 9:15 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Stephanie, I thought of your blog when I read through my review column on Meridian this morning. I can't believe I stuck so many adverbs in it, most of which should not have been there. It's funny how many goofs get by when we proof read electronically and don't take time to print. For some reason I always see more problems in print than I notice on my computer screen.


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