In an earlier post of the “Quotes to Write By” series I cited Mervin Block’s quote “nouns are the bones that give a sentence body. But verbs are the muscles that make it go.”
Well, let’s have a little discussion about adjectives and adverbs.
Believe it or not, these descriptive parts of speech can do a lot of damage to a decent sentence, paragraph, or scene. Mark Twain advises “if you catch an adjective, kill it.” And Stephen King admonishes that adverbs are not a writer’s friend.
Here are some examples from King:
“Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
King also addresses how adverbs can (taboo -ly words) weaken — not strengthen dialogue:
‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:
‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.
What’s a writer to do?
- Use strong verbs instead.
- Describe your character’s facial expressions, actions.
- Utilize literary devises such as metaphor and similes, which I call formidable beasts.
- Get inside the minds of your characters with Deep POV.
At last, the quote for today:
“Adjectives, like adverbs are lazy words, slowpokes, tranquilizers. Watch out for them.”
Jack M. Bickham