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Writing Rules and Fantasy: Adverbs

Writing rules concerning adverbs tend to vary from ‘be sparing with them’, to ‘NEVER use ANY adverbs EVER’. Include too many adverbs in your writing and editors and reviewers are likely to look at you as though the cat dragged in something half-dead and nasty. But what is it about these poor little words that inspires such hostility?

What is an adverb?

An adverb is a word that changes or explains a verb or adjective, or another adverb. They will usually tell us how something happened – when, where, how much, how quickly, etc. In other words, they tend to qualify the action in some way. Most are easy to spot because they handily end in ‘ly’. Like the word ‘handily’ in the previous sentence.

The bolded words in the following sentences are adverbs:

“No,” John said loudly.
She walked heavily to the couch.
Alice quickly followed the rabbit.
Suddenly, a monster appeared from the earth.

So why avoid them? And how?

It is not necessary to cut out adverbs completely, and any writing rule that says so is both unhelpful and ridiculous. However, there are many cases in which it might be better to avoid using an adverb by choosing a more expressive verb instead. Let’s take another look at the sentences above.

“No,” John said loudly.

We want the reader to know that John is speaking loudly, but wouldn’t it be better if the reader felt this? We could say: “No,” John yelled. Or “No,” John shouted. Both ‘yelled’ and ‘shouted’ are more forceful, and give a feeling of greater energy than ‘said loudly.’

We can do a similar thing with the other sentences:

She walked heavily to the couch.
She plodded to the couch.

Alice quickly followed the rabbit.
Alice chased the rabbit.

Suddenly, a monster appeared from the earth.
A monster erupted from the earth.

In these examples, we have removed the need for an adverb by using a better verb, one that tells us more about the action, one that makes us feel the action. This creates a sense of immediacy, helping to draw the reader into the story. (Eagle-eyed readers might note that ‘to the couch’ and ‘from the earth’ are adverbial phrases, but at the moment we are only concerned with actual adverbs.)

In other cases, an adverb might be unnecessary or just, well, sound silly. The latter, of course, comes down to individual taste, but here are a few examples, with the offensive adverbs bolded:

“…Sir Rupert boomed reverberatingly.”
“The prisoner sweated hotly.”
“The light shiningly illuminated the way.”
“The stalactite dripped wetly.”

What does this have to do with fantasy writing?

Character motivation is a vital element of fantasy. In this genre, characters may not behave in ways that are familiar to the reader, and they will certainly be facing extreme situations. This means that the writer is going to want to qualify a lot of verbs – to explain how, why and in what ways their characters are behaving.

In most cases, choosing a better verb, instead of qualifying a weaker verb with an adverb, will tell us more about the character. It might also help to suggest layers of meaning, or to hint at hidden motivations. For example:

The Joker applied make-up excessively to his face.
The Joker splattered make-up across his face.

Here, the verb + adverb ‘applied excessively’ is replaced with the verb ‘splattered’, a more expressive verb that suggests excessive use without needing the adverb to qualify it. It suggests a messy application of make-up, perhaps done in a passion. ‘Splatter’ makes us think of paint, but also of blood, suggesting a kind of twisted painting. The association with blood creates violent undertones, implying that the Joker may be a sinister character. We’ve added all these layers of meaning simply by changing ‘applied excessively’ to ‘splattered’.

The thief walked sneakily through the castle’s corridors.
The thief prowled through the castle’s corridors.

Again, the expressive verb ‘prowled’ communicates more than the verb + adverb ‘walked sneakily’. It still tells us that the thief is trying to be quiet and sneaky, but it also suggests a more menacing intent. It tells us that the thief is actively looking for something or someone. It suggests that the thief is predatory, cat-like, and dangerous.

From these examples, it is easy to see how swapping an adverb for a more expressive verb can bring writing to life, complementing the atmosphere of the story, or creating a subtle subtext.

Fantasy also includes a lot of description. Remember the rule ‘Show, Don’t Tell’? Just as it can be tempting to describe unfamiliar things by stating what they are or what they do, instead of showing, so it can be tempting to let adverbs do all the heavy lifting.

The castle stood mightily on the cliff.
The mountain loomed scarily in the darkness.

Using adverbs in this way tells us things, rather than showing us. Why is the castle mighty? Why is the mountain scary? Adverbs are not always out of place in descriptions, but it would be a mistake to let description rest on adverbs alone.

Describing action by using too many adverbs is a greater problem. Adverbs can often sound a little formal and may rob the writing of any emotional value. Using a more expressive verb will liven up a fight scene, or create a more interesting visual for the reader.

The warrior hit her opponent brutally over the head.

This could be livened up with a more active or suggestive verb.

The warrior clobbered her opponent over the head
or The warrior mutilated her opponent
or The warrior lacerated her opponent

However, another important way in which this rule relates to fantasy writing is when to ignore it…

Can you ignore it?

Yes, in many cases you can.

Some people will always hate descriptive ‘ly’ adverbs, and they will criticise a writer for using them, but this does not mean that you have to hate them as well. Adverbs are often associated with more poetic writing, meaning that their use comes down to each individual author’s style. Perhaps using a lot of adverbs is not suited to very practical, gritty fantasy, but there are many other subgenres of fantasy where adverbs are not only great, they are vital.

Two examples are weird fiction, in which ‘purple prose’ and poetic, stilted, or even old-fashioned vocabulary is a part of the genre’s identity and atmosphere, and comic fantasy, in which using any language that is over the top can form part of the humour. In the former case, unusual adverbs might be employed alongside an obscure or atmospheric verb. In the case of comic fantasy, unnecessary adverbs might pop up a lot. Remember Sir Rupert booming reverberatingly? He’d be at home in much comic fantasy.

But adverbs can be used to great effect in any subgenre of fantasy. This is where the spirit and reasoning behind the rule becomes more important than abstract restrictions. Adverbs tend to be shunned when they are not useful, or when another word would be more useful. But if the adverb is the best word to use in the sentence, then there is no reason to change it simply for the sake of avoiding an adverb.

For example:

Jace moved sinuously through the steps of the dance.

‘Sinuously’ suggests a snake-like movement, which is exactly the image we wanted. Jace’s movements are beautiful but also creepy and predatory, like a snake. How could we change this to get rid of the adverb? Perhaps Jace slithered? But he’s dancing; that doesn’t make sense. Perhaps he weaved, or glided, or slipped. But none of those suggest the snake-like image. Undulated? Better, but still not quite right. In this case, the adverb is suggesting layers of meaning that other words might not achieve.

The dragon’s scales shone majestically in the sunlight.
The dragon’s scales blazed in the sunlight.

‘Majestically’ is a good word, with associations of royalty and awe. But if we wanted to avoid the adverb, we could swap ‘shone’ for a more expressive verb, such as ‘blazed’. Blazed suggests fire and ferocity, which is also appropriate for a description of a dragon. But wait, the fierce power conjured by the word ‘blazed’ is very different from the regal majesty of the former sentence. Simply swapping a verb for a more expressive verb could change the whole meaning or mood of the sentence, solving nothing. In this case, the writer needs to know what they are trying to achieve before arbitrarily changing anything. Trying to remove the adverb could actually be damaging to the writing.

Besides this, adverbs are everywhere:

It happened yesterday.
I’ll be there soon.
The kittens are playing together.

Trying to avoid adverbs like these would be difficult, and what would be the point? When adverbs feel natural or necessary, then it makes sense to use them, especially in characters’ speech. Adverbs are an important part of language; they exist for a reason. Even this article is packing plenty of them!

Finally, do not worry about adverbs at all until you are at the editing stage. You’ll find you use a lot of adverbs when writing a first draft, as they are a quick and easy way to communicate something. This is good. You can change them later if you want.

And if you prefer the adverb, keep it. Own your style. If all writers were the same, it would be a very boring world!

Title image by anndr.

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7 Comments

  1. It’s refreshing to read a well-balanced article on this subject. I think the moral is always to search for the best words in context – not only when adverbs are involved.

  2. Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Great article. When it comes to writing, I’m of the opinion that all rules are guidelines. But in this instance, your point is well taken. Keeping the “no adverb” rule in the back of your mind while writing and re-writing allows forces a writer to vary word choice and will often lend flavor to passages that could be a bit too bland. Writing is work, and every job has rules. Assuming we all want to “manufacture the best product” we can, it behooves us to keep these rules/guidelines in mind. And if we’re being honest, we all occasionally slack off at work, too.

  3. Fab article – great advice. Sometimes picking a cool sounding word doesn’t help the overall story. If it’s not the right description of the character, it shouldn’t be there. If it doesn’t express the feel of events, it shouldn’t be there. Although I must admit, I really want to shoe-horn in ‘‘Sinuously’ somewhere in my current manuscript!

  4. Laila says:

    This is quite literally the best article on adverbs I have ever read. Thank you so much. I will blog about it tomorrow with more time, but you brought up some great examples and expressed the misconceptions of the dislike to adverbs really well!

  5. […] Show, Don’t Tell – Adverbs – Kill Your […]

  6. shawn says:

    This was pretty helpful for me. I’ve been a little guilty of adverb abuse lol but I’m getting better 😀

  7. Maya says:

    Hands down the best article on adverbs I have ever read. As a young writer, I have been searching for tips in just about every corner of the internet, and almost every article says “Don’t use adverbs!” but I never understood why! Thanks for writing this.

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