Here’s the deal on Adverbs, they’re telling — and lazy telling at that!
Let’s delve into what an adverb is. An adverb at its simplest definition, is a modifier/amplifier for another word, and usually redundant. See what I did there? Usually is an adverb and the sentence reads the same without it.
Well meaning “professionals” will tell you that adverbs are the literary devil and to banish them all to the seventh-layer of hell known as the trash bin; but is that the best approach for your story?
The simple answer is this: If you need to modify/amplify another word; then perhaps the issue is with word choice. Adverbs are symptoms of other issues, like telling, and passive voice.
Take a look at this example of an opening/hook-line(s):
No one ever said being a butcher was ever going to be easy. Especially if one happens to be … well not human. Not entirely at least … Try more hybrid.
Adverbs are telling and don’t really give the reader much to go on, which defeats the entire purpose of the hook. A hook should engage the reader; and because they are so hooked, they want to know more and turn the page to keep reading. I’m sorry, but you cannot accomplish that effect with all the filtering caused by adverbs.
With that in mind, we’ll start with the easy ones.
If you delete an adverb and the sentence reads the same without it, that’s a sure sign the adverb should be deleted. In the example above, this simple rule takes care of “ever” and “especially.” They should go. The entire statement “Not entirely at least” is filtering the important information, she’s a hybrid. Did you just say, “Huh? It’s a girl?”
I did too when I read it the first time. That reaction is caused by the lack of information given for the reader to create a mental image of the character and setting. What’s that mean? It means, the author filtered too much information and kept the reader from jumping into the journey with the character. Crap.
When writing, ensure your point is coming across to the reader. As authors it’s only natural for us (yes, I’m an author. When I’m not helping others develop their stories, I’m writing my own) it’s easy for us to throw adverbs on the page because we know exactly what we mean and we assume that the reader will too. That isn’t always the case though. Take for example the word softly. To me, this means a whisper and usually timid. Another author told me that it meant seductive, soft tone of voice. I honestly, never even considered that as an option when I was helping him revise his manuscript because the context didn’t tell me that’s what it meant. And that is the problem with adverbs. Take the time to show the reader what is happening instead of telling them, because everyone’s interpretation will be different.
Please take a moment with the examples below to see how a simple change in word choice eliminates the need for adverbs and takes us from telling to showing.
“She breathed deeply,” and “She took a deep breath,” are both telling.
“She took a deep breath,” may not have the adverb, but it’s just as telling. The idea is to show the emotion behind the deep breath.
She huffed = annoyed, frustrated
She gasped = surprise, shock
She gulped = fear, worry
Back to our hook — the adverbs are deleted, and we know how to choose strong verbs. But what about the description?
The sign was badly broken, but it welcomed them home. Here the adverb modifies the adjective, “broken”. If we choose a stronger adjective, the adverb isn’t needed and, BONUS showing not telling, giving the reader a clear image.
The weather-worn sign welcomed them home.
She looked very beautiful in the blue dress. Here the adverb amplifies the adjective, beautiful. This may sound nice when it comes from a loved one, but for readers it’s telling—and they prefer imagery.
Her eyes sparkled in the blue dress.
Her beauty shines in the blue dress.
Showing through dialogue, even better!
“The blue mini-dress accents your legs and eyes. You’re beautiful.”
Add all that together and here’s an example of hooking the reader with showing rather than telling—and without a lazy adverb:
Dad said, ‘being a butcher isn’t going to be easy.’ He meant being a girl isn’t going to be easy. But I’m no longer human—I’m a hybrid—and my gender has nothing to do with the problems of feeding a pack.
Whoa! Now the reader has plenty of information to form a question or two. What happened? How’d she become a hybrid? What type of hybrid is she? She feeds the entire pack? All questions to push them forward in the story by reading more to find the answers. Hooked!
Not all adverbs are bad, and will sometimes sound better to the reader. This is usually only true in dialogue (wink, wink) So like the old saying, the point is to understand a rule before breaking it. Overuse is the problem with adverbs and my advice is always—balance. Balance is your writing style. Now go hack those lazy adverbs from your manuscript and hook your readers.