Writing Hacks #10: Nuke your adverbs

Alright, let’s kick this thing off and read a short paragraph about Reginald shall we?

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Let’s park for the moment whether you think the passage is good or bad, for the sake of this exercise, it actually doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we can do anything to make the passage better. This we will aim to do by decluttering the passage of its adverbs.

Er….What is an adverb?

An adverb is a modifier, typically (though not always) you’ll see an -ly on the end of it, like carefully, respectfully etc. Here’s a list of over 3000 of them. Google says adverbs are: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gentlyquitethenthere ).

Ok got it. Why are adverbs so common in writing then?

What is often taught in schools about creative writing is completely at odds with what is taught by professional creative writing teachers. At school, children are encouraged to use flowery vocabulary and descriptive adverbs. In a sense, this is good, because it’s definitely worth having a broad and varied vocabulary at your disposal right? You have to use these words in order to learn them. No issue there. The problem is, this ‘bad habit’ carries on uncorrected and will feature in their future creative writing.

What’s your actual beef with adverbs themselves then?

My beef is that adverbs are explanation. When you hear the oft misunderstood edict to ‘show but don’t tell,’ what people actually mean is show but don’t explain. (Telling is fine but I’ll talk about that another time). Adverbs are a perfect example of this. You’re explaining the way something should be interpreted by the reader. Now what’s wrong with that? Well, as a general rule, readers enjoy working things out for themselves with the clues you give them. Therein lies the enjoyment. When you tell someone exactly how to interpret something, it becomes less interesting. There’s less for the reader to engage with. So there, that’s my beef with adverbs. That’s not to say they can never be used, there are no universals here. The main point is to be aware that you’re using an adverb and if you are, have a good reason for doing so.

So let’s revisit the passage from the beginning. Here i’ve bolded the adverbs.

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Now, we could just delete the adverbs, but in some cases we may benefit from using different words. So here’s a heavier edit.

“Reginald paced across the forecourt, bumping into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ he swatted his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper into a bin. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.”

Overall the whole things is shorter, tighter and more direct. Let’s examine why. Clearly ‘paced’ is preferable to the clunky ‘walked quite quickly’ (urgh it makes me shudder!). So using active verbs is a good tip for replacing some adverbs. She stepped quietly can become, she tiptoed. He said loudly can become he shouted/yelled/cried. Out of all the adverbs in the passage, the worst was probably ‘remorsefully’. Doesn’t it just stick out and poke you in the ribs? This is typical of a writer trying to get across an idea; in this case, that his character is annoyed that he won’t have time to read the paper. But it’s not necessary to explain that to your reader with the adverb. The reader will get it from the sentence that follows “He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.” which just so happens to be an example of Free Indirect Speech – check out Writing Hacks Week 8 if you want to read more about that technique.

Dhalsim’s approach to adverbs

As the great Stephen King says, “the path to hell is paved with adverbs.” Off you go then! Sharpen your machetes and watch your adverbs quietly tremble!

Happy writing

CH

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Writing Hack #3: How to get character depth

Think of your favourite ever novel or TV series. Now think about one or two of the main characters. They’re interesting right? They’re complex, like a real person? If you took that character out of the novel or off the screen and placed them in a setting of your choosing I bet you could predict exactly how they’d behave or react to certain events. That sort of character is called lots of things; a three-dimensional character, a character with depth, well-fleshed out, rounded, complex and so on.

But how do you make an idea in your head become this brilliant character? Of course there are many techniques but today let’s look at one writing hack that for me, makes the biggest difference most quickly.

Three contrasting character traits

Got a character in mind? In your head they are probably already complex. Don’t have a character? Well you can even start with the traits and a character may emerge around them. Let’s pick three contrasting traits and see where it takes us. Let’s say someone is;

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  • Submissive
  • Jealous
  • Hysterically witty

Now i’m imagining a girl with an older sibling who’s better looking, successful but is actually not as clever. Or a guy with an idiot boss whose job he is desperate for but isn’t quite bold enough to get. You’ll now start to see why there is often a debate about whether you can separate out plot and characters as separate concepts. They are intrinsically entangled. To a large extent, character is plot.

Using these three contrasting character traits as an authorial technique, the character has an instant level of complexity borne out of their competing emotions and desires. The key is to have contrasting emotions, one negative and two positive or vice versa. You have three positive or three negative key traits and you get a one dimensional character who’s just good or just bad – BORING.

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Breaking Bad as an example

Let’s take another example, but now someone from recent pop culture, like Walter White from the series Breaking Bad. For those who don’t know the premise, here it is really quickly: Walter is a nice as pie high school chemistry teacher with cancer, a pregnant wife and a disabled son and in some financial difficulty. Worried how they’ll survive after he’s gone, he uses his expertise as a chemist to manufacture crystal meth and enters the murky world of drug dealing to secure his family’s financial future.

Traits change as a character develops but at the start of the series before Walter truly breaks bad, what three key traits does Walter have? For me, he’s a…

  • Family man: Walter loves his family and feels a massive responsibility to safeguard their well being. He would do anything for them, in fact it’s that very thing that gets him into trouble.
  • Downtrodden genius: Walter is an under appreciated genius – his job well beneath his intellect. He also founded a startup that went into the financial stratosphere just after he left. He’s justifiably bitter about it, and to cap it all, he has to work at the car wash to supplement his income and even wash the cars of some of his rich students.
  • Liar: Walter is a pathological liar.

So someone who is a family man is also a liar. From just those two traits you can start to develop plot. He lies to his family. Why? To protect them. Thus we get conflict, intrigue. The third trait adds more depth; not just that Walter has a skill, but also that he’s been overlooked and under-estimated his whole life. Here’s his chance to prove people wrong.

Let’s recap

  • Picking three key contrasting character traits will add depth and complexity to your character.
  • Try to think of two positive and one negative, or two negative and one positive to create friction, conflict and intrigue.
  • Be specific with the traits. Being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ won’t help you. Think about what defines your character traits and ask yourself, why are they like this? In that, there is plot.

Got your three character traits? In next week’s post i’ll talk about how to best reveal  how your character has these traits; with direct action of course.

If you want to support me then grab a copy of my People’s Book Prize shortlisted spy thriller Orca Rising and review it on Amazon by writing something nice and colouring in all the stars 🙂 If you’d like some assistance with your writing why not check out my critique service.

Until then. Adios.

CH