In Praise of Adverbs (she typed defensively)
Updated: Apr 27, 2019
Like charity muggers and clothes moths, adverbs are one of those things that get a universally bad rap. ‘Cut virtually every one you write,’ advises one of the leading texts on editing your own book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Stephen King believed the road to hell was paved with adverbs – an odd image, but it’s been parroted across the online creative-writing advice sites ever since.
Adverb opponents believe these little words, the ones ending in ‘-ly’ that so often crop up in dialogue, detract from what the characters are saying, which is the important part. They’re excess baggage, and that’s generally taken as the sign of an amateur. For instance, if your main character is saying, ‘Get lost!’, there’s no need for ‘he said angrily’ – because there’s really only one way to say ‘get lost’.
But I’d argue that judicious use of adverbs with speech tags is a strength, not a weakness. Recently I was struck by a good example in a favourite old novel, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. No one would say Douglas Adams was a fine literary stylist, but he has a way of dropping in just the right word at the right moment, with incredible effect. Here’s the passage:
'Ford,' insisted Arthur, 'I don't know if this sounds like a
silly question, but what am I doing here?'
'Well you know that,' said Ford. 'I rescued you from the Earth.'
'And what's happened to the Earth?'
'Ah. It's been demolished.'
'Has it,' said Arthur levelly.
Now, if you didn’t have ‘levelly’ in there, the reader would assume that Arthur Dent was just restating Ford’s revelation blankly, as if to take it in, or asking for clarification. ‘Levelly’ gives it a brilliant undertone of fury and bewilderment, the sort of inferno of suppressed exasperation that John Cleese always expresses so well. Try conveying all that in the dialogue alone.
Another good use for the adverb is to undercut readers’ expectations. This happens when you subvert a cliché by using the opposite adverb to the usual one. Let’s say Evil Uncle has taken Teenage Heiress out for a boat ride. They’re going to an island to meet the rest of the family for a picnic. But Evil Uncle has the tiller, and he’s steering the boat around the point instead …
‘Er, aren’t we going the wrong way?’ she said. [No need for ‘timidly’ here, because you’ve covered it with ‘er’.]
‘No, there’s been a change of plan,’ he said lightly.
‘Lightly’ comes where you might expect ‘menacingly’, and so, paradoxically, it creates an even greater sense of menace. Evil Uncle’s words and actions don’t match his tone. What is he trying to hide?
Adverbs were much more fashionable fifty or sixty years ago, which is partly why creative writing tutors are so down on them now. Browne and King, in their re-editing of a passage in The Great Gatsby, take out every single adverb, which seems a shame; the writing loses a lot of its flavour. It’s true, though, that writers of yore relied on them a bit too much. I once counted six uses of ‘sharply’ over two pages in an Agatha Christie. Nevertheless, I’ll always have a soft spot for another of her favourites, ‘slowly’. Give me ‘No, she said slowly’ over its Twitter-era equivalent, ‘Nooooooooo’, any day.