An adverb modifies the verb. It is a word that describes how or when something was done–most commonly recognized with the ending ‘ly’ but not always.
Growing up, I heard the saying, “Don’t use adverbs,” so I avoided them as best I could. It wasn’t until I listened to Stephen King’s audiobook ‘On Writing’ that I finally understood.
Adverbs exist for a purpose. So far, in the two paragraphs above, I’ve used three adverbs—‘commonly’, ‘always’, and ‘finally’. You might ask since this post is about avoiding adverbs, why am I using them? To prove a point. That point is the proper place of adverbs such as conversational blog posts or casual essays. Such easygoing writing styles are informative and bring the reader in by sounding like a friend.
Adverbs have an important role in communication. What I propose today is the role of adverbs in short stories and novels—works of fiction. This is where the rule “Don’t use adverbs” comes into play. The most typical use of adverbs is tied with dialogue. For instance:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix said angrily.
Now, I’ve already mentioned the use of ‘said’, but where does that leave the adverb ‘angrily’? After all, it tells us how he spoke. It tells us how he spoke—doesn’t show.
What does it show us about his character? All right, he’s angry, but that doesn’t narrow down anything since everyone gets angry. He could be a hot-headed drunk whose wife just confronted him about his drinking:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix threw his bottle across the room and ignored when it shattered against the wall.
Or he could be a determined detective in the interrogation room as a difficult suspect twists the truth to probe at the detective’s dark past.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix narrowed his eyes on the suspect in the center of the room, but he forced himself not to uncross his arms and strangle the man.
Anger is an emotion. Everyone responds to emotions differently. Showing the body language of the character through that emotion solidifies that character in the reader’s mind.
Another common use of adverbs is to describe an action such as: He tiptoed quietly into the room. ‘Tiptoed quietly’ is redundant, so the adverb ‘quietly’ is unnecessary. Have you ever tried to tiptoe loudly?
“Is there ever a right time to use adverbs?” Of course. There are always exceptions to the rules, but it depends on the context. Just as it is with ‘telling’, you must know which adverbs you are using and why. If you can’t justify it, and if you can easily take it out and the sentence still gets your message across, then the adverb is unnecessary. However, if it is very important to show how a character did something because it intensifies the scene in simple ways, then leave it. Consider this:
Felix hesitated in the doorway of the hospital room then slowly stepped inside the dark room.
In that sentence, I could have taken out ‘slowly’, and the sentence would read fine. However, leaving it in, places an emphasis on the action and hints at his great reluctance to enter the room because he feels responsible for the patient getting harmed in the first place. When an adverb is the only word that can get the message across clearly and simply, then use it.