Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Use adverbs sparingly," she advised editorially.

This coming Wednesday, March 4th, is National Grammar Day, so I thought I’d celebrate by writing a post about grammar. Although it’s not really about grammar. It’s about one of those rules for good writing.

I learned a lot of writing rules back in broadcast journalism school: write short, uncomplicated sentences; don’t put more than twenty words in a sentence; write in present tense; don’t use the word “yesterday,” lest your listeners think you’re running old news; and on and on.

These particular rules are pretty much useless for fiction writing. Most novelists don’t write in present tense (although I hear it’s a thing in some circles) and nobody cares whether you mention “yesterday” in your novel or not. But among the rules that have stuck with me is this: Don’t use adverbs.

As I’m sure you know, adverbs are modifiers. Whereas adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, adverbs modify verbs (and adjectives, and sometimes other adverbs). Adverbs come in many flavors, including in conjunction with other words in adverbial phrases and clauses. But your garden-variety adverb is easy to spot: it’s an adjective with –ly tacked onto the end.

Right about now, you’re probably saying, “But why such prejudice against the poor adverb, Lynne? It never did anything bad to anybody, did it?”

Well, no. But it’s weak. If you dropped that adverb and used a different verb, your sentence would be stronger. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s say you wrote this:

Fred moved quickly across the field.

That’s an okay sentence, as far as it goes. But how did Fred move quickly? Let’s look at a few possibilities:

Fred hurried across the field.
Fred darted across the field.
Fred streaked across the field.
Fred galloped across the field.
Fred careened across the field.

See the difference? In each of these sentences, Fred is still moving quickly. But depending on the verb you choose, your reader will draw a slightly different – and more descriptive – picture.

Sometimes in writing fiction, though, you don’t want your verb to quite so obvious about pulling the action along. Sometimes you want your verb to fade into the background. Yes, I’m talking about dialogue tags.

Some people just hate the word said. It grates on them. The repetition makes them crazy. If you’re one of those people, I apologize, because I believe said and its cousin asked are critical tools in any fiction writer’s toolbox.

If you use strong verbs for dialogue tags, you run the risk of taking attention away from the dialogue. Plus, it’s too easy to stray into the hyperbolic (ranted? cajoled?) or the physically impossible (I’m sorry, but nobody can shriek through an entire sentence).

But if you’re going to use plain-vanilla verbs in your dialogue tags, you need to do something else to give context to your characters’ words. You can describe their body language – crossing their arms, tapping their feet, looking away, and so on. Or you can describe what they’re doing as they’re talking – peeling a label off of a beer bottle, making an omelet, cutting flowers for a bouquet. Or you can use an adverb:

“Is Fred going to be all right?” Sadie asked hopefully.
“He’ll be fine,” the doctor said briskly. “Just don’t let him careen into any more fences.”

I wouldn’t go overboard on putting –ly words in dialogue tags; I’d use them sparingly, and intersperse them with the other methods I mentioned. But my point is that adverbs do have a place in fiction writing. Just not a huge one. And do take care that you don’t stray into Tom Swifty territory with them – unless, of course, you want to.

Happy National Grammar Day!

(This post was originally published at Indies Unlimited.)

These moments of Tom Swifty blogginess have been brought to you, as public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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