Using Adverbs in Fiction
First off, let’s talk about what an adverb actually is.
Cambridge Dictionary has a nice definition:
a word that describes or gives more information about a verb, adjective, adverb, or phrase:
In the phrase "she smiled cheerfully", the word "cheerfully" is an adverb.
In the phrase "the house was spotlessly clean", the word "spotlessly" is an adverb.
This additional information can be grouped into how, where, when, to what extent, and how often.
Adverbs are mostly formed from adjectives by adding a -ly on the end (softly, wisely, quietly, strongly), but not always (and not every word ending in -ly is an adverb; weary, holy, unruly, scraggly and frilly aren't adverbs). Some adverbs don't follow this rule, and retain their adjective form: She ran fast. He hit the brick wall hard. They arrived late to the party.
There’s also adverbial phrases – combinations of words that function in the same way as an adverb. Take the following example:
The bomb exploded loudly.
By now, you’ll hopefully be able to identify loudly as the adverb in this sentence. But how about this:
The bomb exploded with a loud bang.
At first glance it might not be obvious, but the phrase with a loud bang performs the same grammatical function as loudly did in the first example. We would call this an adverbial phrase.
Some more examples:
She won the race by an inch.
Susan went to the protest last night.
So far, adverbs sound innocuous enough, right? So why is it they’re so often demonised in the writing world? You’ve probably seen the Stephen King quote “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
I probably wouldn’t go that far. A judiciously used adverb can enliven a sentence, add crucial information or portray a certain mood. The problem is with overuse; adverbs can be a red flag for lazy or repetitive writing, and telling over showing.
Telling the reader what they already know
1) “I’m furious about this!” said Mum angrily.
2) “You can be really stupid sometimes,” said David rudely.
3) “Shh! She might hear you,” Freya whispered quietly.
4) “Do you really think so?” she asked questioningly.
5) The horse galloped speedily over the hills.
6) The child grinned happily as he was handed the ice cream.
In each of the above examples, the adverbs (italicised) are not adding any additional information. In example 1, the anger is stated in the content of Mum’s speech, and inferred in example no. 2. In 3, we are already told that Freya is whispering, so quietly is redundant, as is questioningly in example 4. And in both 5 and 6, the preceding verb tells us all we need to know and the adverb is just cluttering the sentence.
Weak vs. strong verbs
The following is an excerpt from the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.
‘He glances both ways then ducks his head as he runs the last few steps across the road towards the cab, the word ‘Blackfriars’ already on his lips. The rain is seeping down the gap between his collar and his shirt. He will be soaked by the time he reaches the office, even walking this short distance. He may have to send his secretary out for another shirt.’
Now read my lightly edited version below. My additions are in italics for easy reference.
‘He looks swiftly both ways then ducks his head as he quickly runs the last few steps across the road towards the cab, the word ‘Blackfriars’ already on his lips. The rain is dripping slowly down the gap between his collar and his shirt. He will be completely soaked by the time he reaches the office, even walking this short distance. He may have to send his secretary out for another shirt.’
Wasn’t the first version much more streamlined and lively? Notice how I’ve replaced some of the verbs with weaker ones (glances to looks swiftly, seeping to dripping slowly). In this version the adverbs are arguably needed to portray the same meaning, where they weren’t before, because in the first version the stronger verbs did the work all by themselves. I’ve also added in a couple of unnecessary adverbs just for the heck of it (runs quickly, completely soaked).
My version may only be four words longer than the first, but over the course of a whole novel, that could easily add up to several thousand unnecessary words. If you’re prone to overwriting, scouring your novel for -ly words might be a good place to start.
Be intentional with your adverbs
By now, you might have the impression that I’m against all adverb usage, but that is certainly not the case. As I mentioned earlier, careful use of adverbs can work well to enrich dialogue, show mood and intention. Take the following examples:
“Who lives there?” he asks.
“No one really knows. It’s one of the great mysteries of Boston.”
He laughs and then looks at me inquisitively. “What’s another great mystery of Boston?”
It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover
Including the adverb inquisitively primes us to hear the dialogue straight after it in the flirtatious tone it’s intended to be heard in. We might not have picked up on the tone without it.
Because Juliet Kerthen may be old and fragile, but she is also daunting. The suitably blue-eyed, properly cheekboned daughter of Lord Carlyon.
The Fire Child by S.K. Tremayne
The adverbs add to the sense of intimidation that the main character – Rachel – feels when meeting her new mother-in-law. There’s also a touch of snark and humour that point to Rachel’s defensiveness.
And then it happens: he blinks three times, each close of his eyes punctuated by an absurdly long pause, like a mechanical batting of lashes.
Vox by Christina Dalcher
By telling us the pause was absurdly long rather than just long, we know there is something important about this seemingly insignificant act.
Summing Up …
Watch out for double-telling! Don’t fall into the trap of using adverbs to tell us what we already know.
Can you substitute verb-adverb combinations with a stronger verb?
Use adverbs when they tell the reader something they would have no way of knowing otherwise.
If you suspect an adverb is just clutter, read the sentence aloud with and without it. If there is no difference in meaning, get rid of it!
Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor