The Adverb Problem and Why Authors Should Care
In this article, I will set out to explain why so many famous authors (Stephen King being perhaps the most vocal) warn other authors against the use of adverbs.
In fact, King’s hatred of adverbs is so intense that he’s been quoted as saying, “Adverbs are evil.”
You will discover the role of adverbs in fiction writing, and I’ll demonstrate why removing adverbs from your writing will make your book more enjoyable to read.
In short, I’ll explain just why adverbs are evil.
What Is an Adverb?
The Wikipedia definition of an adverb (whether ending in LY or not) is paraphrased below:
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, other adverb—or a noun phrase, clause, or sentence—and can also be used as a determiner (which are otherwise articles, quantifiers, and/or quantities that precede a noun). In general, adverbs express manner, place, time, frequency, degree, level of certainty, etc., answering questions such as: How? In what way? When? Where? To what extent?
See the Wikipedia entry for the exact quote: [Source].
That could be a little confusing, so let’s look what the great Stephen King has to say about adverbs. This is taken from his masterpiece On Writing:
Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that … end in -ly. [Source].
So an adverb is a word that modifies a verb (an action word, e.g., jump, kick, drink).
Common adverbs end in the suffix -ly (like “quickly”), and, as such, they’re pretty easy to spot in a block of text.
Why Are Adverbs Evil?
Stephen King wrote in On Writing that the “road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Why so much vitriol for such a simple way of writing?
Let’s take the following sentence:
He closed the door firmly.
The adverb in this sentence is “firmly,” and it describes the manner in which the door is being closed.
Its job is to guide the reader toward an interpretation of the sentence controlled by the author, who is attempting to control the image in the reader’s mind.
The result is that there’s no room for misunderstanding … right?
The door was firmly shut.
Isn’t that what an author is seeking? Good clean sentences with no room for misunderstanding?
Well, this innocent-sounding sentence is hiding a crippling problem that plagues many authors with great potential.
But, before we get to the problem, a little background …
Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell, is perhaps one of the most overused and misunderstood writing mantras.
In fact I’ve written a whole book (it is free, by the way) that aims to help authors better understand the philosophy of show, don’t tell.
However, I’ll outline the key points before moving on as to why adverbs are evil.
It all links, I promise.
The principle of show, don’t tell, is that your job as an author is to paint a picture in the mind of your reader.
You have a story in your mind, and you are using words to get it into the mind of the reader.
There are two ways to do this:
- You can SHOW the reader your vision.
- You can TELL the reader your vision.
For example, imagine you were writing a scene in which a man had just learned of the death of his wife in a car crash.
If you were TELLING, you might write:
John sat on the seat and cried loudly. He was clearly distraught at the news of the crash and honestly felt as though he would not be able to go on.
In the sentence above, the author is telling the reader that John is crying loudly, that he is clearly distraught, and that he can’t go on.
The problem is that, by telling, the reader is removed from the equation.
The author is leaving very little narrative space.
The reader is being force-fed the story.
In addition, this sentence fails to stimulate any level of emotion in the reader.
As the reader, you are not being asked to “feel” the emotion; instead, you are being asked to observe the action from a passive stance.
You are not part of the story; you are an observer.
The natural progression from this is that you will not care about the character and what is happening to John.
The second option is to show.
If you were SHOWING, you might write:
John slumped back in the chair, his shoulders dipping as his hands came to his face. A muffled sob escaped. He leaned back, dropping his arms to his knees. He looked at the ceiling of the small room. Tears ran down his cheeks as another sob emerged from his lips.
In this sentence, I have taken a very different approach.
Rather than telling my readers that John is sad, I have described sadness.
I have tried to write out the actions of a man who is “distraught.”
The aim is to stimulate an emotion in the readers, to paint a picture that their brain will recognize as sadness. In turn, this forces them to become an active part of the process.
The better the description, the better the results, and, by “better,” I mean, closer to the way a person would act in real life in this situation.
It is an established fact that every emotion carries an action.
If you are able to describe the action, then your brain will be able to match this to an emotion which it has experienced.
This is what Hemingway is referring to when he talks about “truthful” writing.
He is not talking about writing down your darkest secrets but about writing in a way that reflects true human emotions and actions.
If done well, showing allows the author to suck the reader into the book and to become part of the story.
If you have ever felt a genuine emotion when reading a book, it was because the author was showing.
Adverbs Are Dangerous Shortcuts
We can now turn our attention back to adverbs.
In the sections above, we’ve talked about emotion (and we will come back to this, in terms of adverbs, in a little more detail), but adverbs also have another dark side.
Adverbs tend to do more harm than good, and here’s the reason why: they rob the readers of the opportunity to provide their own context to the story.
You, as the author, are not showing the readers how something is done; you’re telling them about how it was done, and that is never the more compelling of the two choices for the reader.
This is still the principle of show, don’t tell, but below I’ve applied it to actions rather than emotions.
Here’s a simple example, just to further illustrate this point:
He turned on the light quickly.
That doesn’t seem like a big deal, right?
He’s just turning on a light.
Now let’s look at the sentence without the adverb:
He turned on the light.
Now that we’ve removed the description, you may be saying to yourself, “Well, that’s a lot worse, isn’t it? Now we know less than we knew before about how he turned on the light.”
Here’s the trick, you don’t need to tell the reader everything.
The readers can work things out for themselves.
In fact, the more “narrative space” you leave, the better it is for the reader. Adverbs are just a crutch.
What matters, in terms of verbs, is what comes before and after them, the context.
If someone is walking around a spooky dark mansion and looking for a light switch, the way they would go about that is different from someone who’s looking for a light switch after a night out at the bar.
By describing your scene in sufficient detail before and after you apply your verbs, the reader will be able to fill in the gaps themselves via context.
Don’t rob them of the opportunity to set their own version of your scene in their head, that’s where all the fun in reading lies!
This approach forces the reader to be an active part of the reading process.
They are not just following along with the text. They are being forced to “lean into” the story and be an active part of the process.
The story is happening in their head, not on the page.
You might think this is all a bit wishy-washy, but here’s a little experiment.
Think of a time you saw a film adaptation of a book you loved. For me, it was The Hobbit.
If you read the book first, then saw the movie, did you feel just a little disappointed in the film version? Did the main character not look the way you imagined or was the main location just wrong?
That’s because you had created the image in your mind.
I am even betting that, if you went back to the original text, you’ll find the descriptions of the character or location are just not as crisp and precise as you remember. That’s you, as a reader, filling the narrative space.
The overuse of adverbs can deny the reader of this pleasure.
By allowing them the opportunity to do some world-building in their own heads, you allow your audience (your readership) to build an emotional connection to your work—, you force them to care.
Adverbs and Emotions
When looking at the role of adverbs in context, it is clear how they can limit the impact of an author’s words.
However, when dealing with emotions, those adverbs play a different role.
First, we have the obvious application in which telling robs the reader of the context and leaves the reader as a passive observer.
Take this sentence:
John sighed sadly.
What does that even mean?
How do you “sigh sadly”? I
f you were to remove the adverb, it would improve this sentence in an instant.
The reason is that the reader is forced to engage with the writing. The context of the surrounding paragraphs would direct the reader as to how and why the character was sighing. If the context is sad, then the reader will add in the type of sigh required.
As we have seen, the best way to stimulate emotion in readers is not to tell them the emotion the character is feeling but to show the reader with words and actions.
However, this is not always an author’s first instinct and can, even with the best of intentions, slip into bad habits.
This is where the second role of adverbs comes into play, and that’s adverbs as flags.
The principle here is not complex.
If you are telling, not showing, then you can be sure that you are using adverbs.
That means if you search your book for adverbs (just use Word’s Find feature, looking for LY), each time you find one, it’s an example of tell for the most part.
This gives you a chance to rewrite and turn the tell into show.
Below is a link to a free online tool for finding adverbs in your projects. You just paste in your text, and it highlights those pesky adverbs in red—very useful. See:
Adverbs in Dialogue
Perhaps the most reviled example of adverbs (as far as Stephen King is concerned) is their use in dialogue.
One of the fastest ways to signal to a publisher or reader that you are a writing rookie (and maybe that the reader should spend time on another book) is to fill up your dialogue with adverbs. Let’s look at this example:
“Where is the briefcase?” she asked angrily.
“I’m sorry. He took it from me, boss,” he said sheepishly.
“Get out there and find it right now,” she said hastily.
Those adverbs above are superfluous to our needs.
Let’s look at that same scene, now without all the adverbs:
“Where is the briefcase?” she asked.
“I’m sorry. He took it from me, boss,” he said.
“Get out there and find it right now,” she said.
There’s no difference here in terms of the information being conveyed.
The one concern an author might consider is that the adverbs give the reader extra information about the state of the speaker.
However, this goes back to telling.
The context of the surrounding paragraphs will give the reader everything needed to work out how the words were said.
More important, by removing the adverbs, you force the reader to lean into the story and become more engaged.
The first example (with adverbs) produces a passive reader; the second (without adverbs) produces an active reader.
Adverbs are a writing crutch; ensure that your writing is strong enough to stand on its own two feet.
Use Beats to Add Context
Context is a key term when it comes to writing and the removal of adverbs.
This is the environment you set and the story that unfolds. Within this framework, the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks that the lack of adverbs leave.
One way to add more context is through the use of beats. In this context, beats are the sections between dialogue that describ action.
Look at this example. It is Denise’s birthday, and she’s just been presented with a surprise birthday cake:
“I love cake,” Denise said happily. “Would you like some?”
If we remove the pesky adverb, we get:
“I love cake,” Denise said. “Would you like some?”
The context of the surrounding paragraphs will supply the reader with enough information to show them that Denise is happy.
However, we can go one step further and use a beat between dialogue.
Here’s the example with a beat:
“I love cake,” Denise said. A smile formed on her face. “Would you like some?”
Here, 'a smile formed on her face' is the beat, and it provides the reader with a little more context.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this example. All we have done is add a smile. However, you recognize a smile as the action of someone who is happy.
You are, therefore, filling in the emotion.
For examples on the best way to use beats, you can steal a trick from screenwriters.
I would recommend finding the script to your favorite action movie (there are tons of script databases on the Internet) and looking it over to see how the screenwriter worked action beats into the dialogue.
One little note here, you will find lots of adverbs in screenplays. Don’t forget they are screenplays, not novels, so different rules apply.
Here’s a short section of the amazing film Chinatown (this link will give you a copy of the full screenplay):
GITTES: I don’t want your last dime.
He throws an arm around Curly and flashes a dazzling smile.
GITTES: What kind of guy do you think I am?
CURLY: Thanks, Mr. Gittes.
GITTES: Call me Jake. Careful driving home, Curly.
He shuts the door on him, and the smile disappears. He shakes his head, starting to swear under his breath.
In this example, we see Gittes flashing and dropping a smile.
The beats add context to the words. Even though screenplays are not like novels, reading just one screenplay will give you an insight into the best way to use beats in your novel.
A Little Goes a Long Way
In the long run, if you are reliant on adverbs, it will hold back your writing from being seen by the largest possible audience.
Think of adverbs as sprinkles of rosemary on a great dish of lamb; a little bit goes a very long way.
You should be looking to use, at most, a handful of adverbs.
If you take care to consider each time you use an adverb, the ones you leave in will have added power. Some authors, Stephen King included, are religious about killing adverbs and will rake through their manuscript in search of adverbs to squash.
If you look over your writing and see too many adverbs in a chunk of text, go back and remove them. Remember: show, don’t tell, always.
What Others Say About Adverbs
There is a long tradition of authors waging war on adverbs. Below is a list of articles that you might find of interest: