Why did Stephen King once say that “the path to hell is paved by adverbs?” The master of horror knows that nothing screams B-movie cheese like using adverbs to augment a scene. For those of you who may not know, adverbs are used to modify verbs. They tell us when, where, how, in what way, or to what extent an action is performed. Adverbs mostly, but not always, include words that end in “ly,” and these are the ones that are usually the easiest to detect in a manuscript.
Let’s look at a few examples of why adverbs should be limited:
Emily skipped happily down the sidewalk. Bob moved toward her quickly, crossing the lawn. Emily saw him and stopped, looking around fearfully for anyone who might help, because Bob had a knife, and Emily knew that the look on his face meant that he intended to use it.
As is often the case with adverbs, “happily,” “quickly” and “fearfully” are already implied through the action, and thus the adverbs become redundant. We can surmise that Emily is happy because she’s skipping, we know that Bob is someone frightening because he’s running toward her with a knife, and we know that if he is running, then he is by definition moving quickly. These adverbs don’t add anything to scene, except to force the reader to absorb more information than necessary, and in fiction writing, that’s a no-no.
Let’s look at the revision, minus the adverbs:
Emily skipped down the sidewalk. Bob ran across the lawn, toward her. Emily saw him and stopped, looking around for anyone who might help, because Bob had a knife, and Emily knew that the look on his face meant that he intended to use it.
This example is more streamlined without those pesky adverbs impeding the flow, and allows the thrust of the drama to be executed more efficiently.
Here’s another example:
“I don’t want to go into this cave,” Chuck said doubtfully.
Bob looked at him sharply. “We’re going in.”
“Maybe we should.” Eddie nodded thoughtfully.
“You’re darn right we should,” Bob replied sharply. He clicked on his flashlight and strode inside rapidly, leaving Eddie and Chuck behind.
Eddie smiled reassuringly. “It’s just a little darkness.”
Chuck peered into the darkness, the beam of Bob’s flashlight fading abruptly as he turned the first corner. Eddie was clearly intrigued by the rumors of what was hidden in the cave. He was going to follow Bob any moment now. Chuck felt his grip on his flashlight tighten.
“Come on!” Bob boomed excitedly from within. “I found the first marker!”
Then he screamed shrilly.
This passage makes me feel like I’m being beaten over the head with information that should already be clear through character interaction. The adverbs don’t allow the drama to speak for itself. For instance, if Chuck says he doesn’t want to go into the cave, then of course he is doubtful in some way. If Eddie hears their dialogue, nods and agrees with Bob, then of course he is being thoughtful. If Bob “strode inside rapidly,” then the word “rapidly” has no place in the passage, since striding is by definition an accelerated pace.
Let’s cut some of the adverbs to see what happens:
“I don’t want to go into this cave,” Chuck said.
Bob glared at him. “We’re going in.”
“Maybe we should.” Eddie nodded.
“You’re darn right we should,” Bob snapped. He clicked on his flashlight and strode inside, leaving Eddie and Chuck behind.
Eddie smiled reassuringly. “It’s just a little darkness. It’s nothing we haven’t been in before. Let’s try it.”
Chuck peered into the darkness, the beam of Bob’s flashlight abruptly fading as he turned the first corner. Eddie was intrigued by the rumors of what was hidden in the cave. He was going to follow Bob any moment now.
“Come on!” Bob boomed from within. “I found the first marker!”
Then he screamed.
Only two adverbs are necessary (arguably) to show how an action is being performed in this passage, and some might say that they could be deleted altogether. Eddie smiling “reassuringly” shows he is sympathetic to Chuck’s hesitation, while the flashlight fading “abruptly” is a viable description of what might happen if someone turns a corner in a dark cave. Everything else in the passage—Chuck’s doubt, Bob’s reaction and his stride, Eddie’s curiosity—are clear through character interaction. Clarity was the driving force for keeping these adverbs, rather than a need to be descriptive.
Adverbs often point out the obvious, and once they’re cut, the result is a story that speaks for itself. Try substituting descriptors such as “Bob replied sharply” with more proactive ones such as “Bob snapped” to help make your writing more efficient. Eliminating them also has the added benefit of reducing word count. When your manuscript is competing with millions of others, you have everything to gain by streamlining your prose and maximizing the effectiveness of every word.
For a more in-depth look at adverbs, please visit: The Guide to Grammar and Writing.