Monday, November 21, 2016

Adverbosity

“If an adverb became a character in one of my novels, I’d have it shot.  Immediately.”
Elmore Leonard

What is so deliciously funny about this statement is how much it is helped by an adverb.  Leave it off and the sentence loses its determination.  To appreciate the power of the adverb, change it to another adverb.  “Eventually.”  “Cheerfully.”  “Reluctantly.”  Each adverb changes the tone of the sentence.  Each one helps the sentence in its own unique way.  That’s what adverbs are; they are helping words – words that modify verbs (at least that is what I was taught in elementary school.)

There are a number of articles and books on writing that express varying opinions on adverbs; most agree that they should be used – dare I say it – rarely.  Really, without a handy adverb, how else could one write that one should not use adverbs very often…a lot…ever.  No matter how I try, the verb “use” needs the help of an adverb unless I go the way of Elmore Leonard and write it out of existence.

However, an action like that results in an equal and opposite reaction, especially when it comes to dialogue tags.  If the old standby “said” is abandoned by its adverb helpers, writers will have to fill in the gap with excessive words to convey the proper meaning.

“I told you not to come,” she said angrily versus “I told you not to come,” she said, her face turning a deep, purple shade of magenta.

“Relax and stay awhile,” he said seductively versus “Relax and stay awhile,” he said as he hurried about the room, plumping the pillows, dimming the lights, pulling the cork out of the wine bottle, and checking that the CD player was set on track 7 “Tonight’s the Night.”

Another reaction is to eliminate “said” altogether as a dialogue tag and replace it with a show-not-tell word.

“I told you not to come,” she growled.  “I told you not to come,” she raged, she wailed, she ejaculated (a salute to Wodehouse.)

The problem is sometimes show-not-tell dialogue tags create unintended mental images. 

“Relax and stay awhile,” he purred.
“I don’t think I should,” she squeaked.
“Oh, please do.  You’ll be safe with me,” he panted.
“That’s not what my mother told me,” she shivered.

Oh, dear, let’s draw the curtain on this little scene while we have the chance.  Now getting back to adverbs, I have decided to allow for their existence, even those that become a character in an Elmore Leonard novel.  I might even take a bullet for an adverb.  Figuratively speaking.



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