Use Adverbs to Create Music for Your Readers’ Ears

The problem with modifiers in general, and adverbs in particular, is they are notorious tellers and a hindrance to good showing. Instead of telling us, “He stormed out of the room angrily,” show us by his actions how an angry man storms out of the room. Show us his clenched fists with white knuckles. Let us hear the boom of his stomping. Describe the sneer on his lip or the growl under his breath.

Adverbs as sound

However, there is a place for the adverb. Sometimes the adverb is useful if only for its sound. As writers, we cannot ignore the resonance of our texts. In these instances, the literary meaning isn’ as important as how the prose sounds – sort of an Ode to Joy-ish literary timbre. So I’d say it’s permissible to use an adverb if it’s there more for its beautiful sound than its sound logic.

Adverbs as symbolism

Adverbs may also carry a bit of symbolism in them, too. In my last novel Prince, I have a woman dying of pneumonia. Her son and her ex-husband are in the hospital room with her. The son notices in the corner a moth dancing “phantasically” on a lightbulb in a small lamp. The moth’s shadow cast upon the ceiling looks like an angel. Both the references to a ghosts and angels let you know that she is going to die. After she passes, the son realizes that the moth is gone.

How to choose correct adverbs

A rule I use to keep adverbs to a minimum is to ask, “How can (some antecedent) be (its modifier)?” My first creative writing professor always asked us to get rid of adverbs. For example, if someone wrote, “The ball rolled happily across the floor,” he’d ask, “How can a ball be happy?” If the student couldn’t answer, the adverb had to go. If by chance a student could explain how hissubject could act in a certain manner, then my professor would say, “Now you’re showing me.” Point made.

Let’s watch our adverbs. If they are examples of us telling and showing, they should go. But they can be used for the sound and the symbolism. When properly placed, a good adverb and enhance the quality of your writing.

Tell me your opinion: How do you decide when to maintain an adverb or delete it?

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About Neal Abbott | @NealAbbott

Along with the recently released novel Bloodhound, Neal Abbott is the author of three non-fiction books: The Gatsby Reader, Think Like a Writer, and My Plans for World Domination. Neal has also authored four novels Siciliana, Drover, Prince, and Pietas. These will be launched throughout the rest of the year. He is the content editor for the creative writing blog A Word Fitly Spoken.

Comments

  1. I know speech tags are very dangerous waters, but I would add to your two and say that an adverb becomes most necessary when the volume of speech changes suddenly — or any other instance where context just doesn’t give enough clues as to how a character delivers a certain line of dialogue (Shakespeare, anyone?). Say, for instance, two characters are in a shouting match when, suddenly, something character 1 says puts character 2 in such a surprised, simmering rage that he (or she) says: “I hate you” quietly, and walks away. The manner in which they walk away can give indicators, but I’m a fan of cluing the reader in as close to the dialogue as possible. Show a change in demeanor, adverb “quietly,” and exeunt.

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us again, Neal!

  3. I still don’t really understand what the problem with adverbs and speech tags are… I get that they can be a problem if they’re overused but I’ve read a lot of books that used adverbs and speech tags and they weren’t too bad…

  4. The discussion on adverbs brings to mind another food-related analogy (why are all my analogies always related to food or running? :)). We’ve all heard the term, “Everything in moderation” when it comes to eating. And it’s true, I think. There will be those who’ll argue that certain foods should be strictly off-limits (anything processed, anything with sugar, etc.), and while those points of view may have valid arguments and come with good intentions, at the end of the day, a balanced diet–which allows for an occasional treat or two–is probably the best way for us to approach eating for physical health, while also preserving our sanity :).

    And so it is with writing, I think. Sure, we could be ruthless and eliminate adverbs altogether or any other parts of speech that people deem “bad,” but doing so would rob us of the richness of language and the unique voice/style of some writers. I can think of several writers, for example (J.K. Rowling comes to mind) who use adverbs a lot, and yet I don’t find them to be distracting or think they take away from the story; on the contrary, I think it makes their voice unique and I wouldn’t change that for the world. If we all follow the same “rules,” we’ll all sound alike, and who wants that?

  5. And to quote my writing teacher: “If you can make it work, do it.”

  6. It’s always interesting to row against the tide. I shall pause a moment before cutting those adverbs in future.

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