Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Writing powerfully with adverbs

Empowering your writing with adverbs

Ensuring every word counts toward something important in the story results in powerful writing. If a word can serve more than one purpose, such as enhance characterization AND move the plot forward, that powerful writing becomes even better.

Modern writing, especially in the non-literary genres, tends to be less flowery than the classic literature of bygone years, perhaps indicative of our busy lifestyles. Getting lost in action and adventure is more entertaining to today's reader than getting lost in scenic venues and wonderful phrases.

Eileen Schuh, Author
One way for writers to ensure they are catering to this preference for brevity is to delete adverbs in favour of more powerful verbs. Thus, rather than having your heroine speak quietly, have her whisper and instead of the villain running quickly have him speed or race. And by all means, for more reasons than one, avoid redundant adverbs such as "shouting loudly" or "weeping sadly".

That said, adverbs have many roles outside of modifying our action words.  Properly used, they can even tighten writing. Among other purposes, adverbs are used to supply a time dimension (firstly, lastly, finally, abruptly), link ideas within sentences and between sentences (simply), and relay nuance and innuendo (purportedly, definitely, supposedly).

They can double up duties. With a single word, an adverb can add detail to a verb as well as deepen characterization. For example, what do we learn about the hero who gently kisses the maiden or the villain who roughly kisses her? A manuscript devoid of adverbs would be sterile indeed.

Properly placed adverbs provide other services as well, such as improve the rhythm of a story. They link phrases and ideas, and reveal connections between actions.

“Fearing he’s standing because he read my mind and found my musings offensive, I straighten and lever myself to where I ought to have been seated. It is soon apparent, however, he's simply surveying the trail ahead.” 

The adverb 'simply' links his act of standing in the first sentence to his act of surveying  in the second. Without the word simply,  we would know he stood and know he surveyed, but have no way of knowing the two actions are linked. Without this link, the two sentences are disjointed and the question of whether or not he stood because he read her mind is not answered. 

Let's take a look at the beginning of my work in progress. I've introduced two characters, but have explained little about them. I want my readers to know that Peter is a gentleman, someone to cheer for, and that she is strong, agile, and independent. I also want to get some electricity crackling between them, some touching perhaps. The adverb 'lightly' helps me accomplish that.

“I’m Peter,” he said, offering his arm to help her down from the machine. 
She rested her hand lightly on his elbow and jumped to the ground. “You drive fast,” she said.

Without the adverb lightly, all we would know about the girl is that she dismounted. Although that would advance the plot, it would do little to characterize her. With 'lightly' readers can surmise she is agile and independent but polite enough to at least make a show of accepting his help.

Consider the sentence, "He’d been told she was surviving alone in the wilderness, but the fact she was amazingly clean and well kempt had him questioning that." I want to drive the story forward, make my readers curious. I want them to wonder who told Peter about her and if there's a reason he's been misled. I want them to keep reading in order to find out if this woman truly is living alone in the wild. The most concise way to do all that is to rewrite the sentence using the adverb "purportedly".  

For someone who was purportedly surviving alone in the wilderness, she was amazingly clean and well kempt.

That one adverb replaces seven words and performs many roles.

Happy writing!

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Eileen Schuh, Author


Schrödinger's Cat

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