By Russel D McLean
Last week, talking about Elmore Leonard, one of his ten rules - my favourite - reared its head. You know, the one about not using adverbs.
Why do we hate them?
I think it comes back to the essence of show and don’t tell. Adverbs tell. Used sparingly, of course, they can be effective, but most of the time we use them unneccesarily. Let’s take a basic example:
“Go to hell,” he said, angrily.
“Angrily”. There’s no need for the word to be there. And yet time and again I read books where this happens, where what is obvious from dialogue is unnecesarily reinforced by an adverb. Let’s overlook the fact that “go to hell” is a cliche, and think about why we would use the word angrily.
Its a first draft problem. The use of the adverb is usually a sign that the writer is talking to themselves and not to the reader. For me adverbs become placeholders until I can work out how to make the scene “pop”. But when overused in final or published drafts, they become the equivalent of a movie director walking on stage and saying, “this is how I mean to convey this moment” because they don’t have faith that the audience will understand their intent. Adverbs kill the moment. They make what is usually already obvious even more so. And they remind us that we are reading. The act of reading - the merging of an author’s words and reader’s imagination - should create an illusion of reality. The more that a writer does to remove the reader from the “reality” of their story, the more likely the reader is not to care.
Make the audience understand. Show them what you mean, Don’t tell them.”
“Okay, smartarse,” I hear you say, “What if you intend for your dialogue to do something other than the obvious?”
“Go to hell,” he said, regretfully.
Okay, okay. I see what you’re talking about. But you still don’t need the adverb.
“Go to hell,” he said. His voice was soft, a whisper, really. There was no punch to his tone, no fire burning behind his eyes.
Yes, it uses more words (and is probably not the finest piece of writing in the world) but it is more of a direct appeal to the reader to use their brains. They are not being directly told what to think. Yes, there are hints and a tone that implies but the reader is less removed than if simply told, “regretfully”.
And yes, I know some people talk about “escapist” fiction as though sometimes we just read to turn off our brains, but its simply not true. Our brains do not turn off. And dumb fiction does not have to be dumbly written.
If you ask me, adverbs (mostly) take away the fun of fiction. When we watch a film, we need to guess what the characters are feeling through gesture and expression. Prose has a shortcut through that process in that it can tell us directly. But by telling us directly it takes away the emotional impact of a dramatic moment. By using, “angrily,”, “sadly”, “madly,” etc etc, we alienate the reader from the reality of the situation. Adverbs distance us from emotion. They provide a barrier between what we want to communicate at an emotional level. They are, in a word, a cheat. We experience the world through sensory impressions. Our brains interpret these. Adverbs bypass those impressions but in doing so lessen the impact on the reader. They are a cheat. And not a good one.
All of which is not to say that they should be avoided completely. Fiction is not a precise art, and sometimes cheating is the only thing to do. But what really annoys me is when adverbs are overused. Yes, all fiction should skip the occasional corner and occasionally adverbs can provide a nice and simple escape from a moment that never ends, but when used all the time they render prose and action soulless.
So, he said. empathetically, avoid the adverb. Use it judiciously. Use it correctly. Just don’t use it in a place where you can appeal directly to the reader’s emotions. Don’t use it as a stand in. Trust your readers. Make them work just a little. Bring them closer to your world. And if you do have to use them; use them wisely. Use them well.
Next week marks the beginning of a series of 11 geeky geeky blogs by Russel leading up to a certain fiftieth anniversary. Just to warn you...