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Monday, February 2, 2015

How to Break Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Adverbs, Adjectives"

As I promised last week when I talked about using cliches in your writing, today, I'm talking about using adverbs and adjective in your writing. When it comes to breaking the rules for adverbs and adjectives, you've got at least five great reasons to do it. 1) The verb or noun you need doesn't exist in your language. 2) To control pacing. 3) To communicate interesting or unusual situations. 4) To create a specific tone or character voice. 5) The adverb or adjective is doing double duty.

What's the Rule?

The Rule:
Don't use adverbs because it weakens your writing. Use adjectives rarely for the same reason.

Why it's a Rule

Take a look at these sentences:

She laughed happily.
The yellow sun was beating down on us.
Jasper pulled hard on the door knob.
"Get your butt to your room right now!" Cynthia said, angrily.
I quickly put on my beautiful, silky pointe shoes and with my thin, spindly, little fingers tie the ribbons around my bony ankle, so they fit constrictingly. I walk awkwardly to the dark, dim wings of the huge stage. I think about one fun evening at a local theater where I lovingly watched a ballerina dance gracefully across the stage and into the soft air. Happy and thrilled, everyone there smiled with joyful eyes.

In each example, the writing can be made stronger by eliminating adverbs and adjectives.

In the first one, we can completely cut out the word "happily." Why? Because whenever people laugh, we assume they are laughing happily. It's redundant.

In example two, we run into the same situation, but with an adjective. We don't need the word "yellow." Unless you are on another planet with a blue star or special atmospheric conditions, the sun is always yellow.

Example three. We have the adverb "hard" modifying "pulled." But the writing would be stronger if you replaced both words with the word "yanked," which means "pulled hard." Do you hear that extra level of intensity that "yanked" has and "pulled hard" doesn't?

Look at example four. What's wrong with it? Well, we could replace "said angrily," with a verb that communicates both of those words. What about saying "Cynthia yelled"? That sounds better. But wait. Look at the dialogue. "Get your butt to your room right now!" That already sounds like a line that would be delivered via yelling. So we can just say, "Cynthia said." See? The dialogue implies she's angry.

Finally, example five. Do you see how many adverbs and adjectives there are in that thing? I call this "stacked modifiers." Usually it happens when the writer is trying to describe something really poetically or just really well. It can turn into purple prose real fast. It sounds weak. Take out most of those adverbs and adjective by showing them to your audience. Use some nice strong verbs. Some of the modifiers, like "pink" and "silky" can be eliminated just because all pointe shoes are pink and silky.

Here are our revamped versions.
She laughed.
The sun was beating down on us.
Jasper yanked the door knob.
"Get your butt to your room right now!" Cynthia said.
I jam my feet inside my pointe shoes. The ribbons snake up my ankles. And I waddle to the wings. One time at a theater I watched a ballerina glide across the stage and leap into the air. The pointe shoes curved in crescents, molding to her feet like leather. We all soared with her, the audience, the usher, the technician in the control box, our faces split with grins.
If I wanted to take the time, I could make the fifth revamp better, so it communicated everything the old version did, but do you see how I used strong verbs and showed some of the modifiers?

In fairness, it's okay to use adverbs and adjectives in your creative writing occasionally. Maybe you can sprinkle a few here or there. But there are better ways to break the "no adverbs, few adjectives" rule. Here are five ways that merit using them, and, that can actually take your writing to the next level.

When and How to Break the Rule

1) The verb you need doesn't exist. Or the noun itself, by default, doesn't imply what you mean.

Remember how I said you could get rid of adverbs by finding a verb that implies the same thing? I hope so, because that was only a few paragraphs ago. Sure, we can replace "pulled hard" with "yanked," but our language lacks in other areas. I've run into this problem several times in writing, and unfortunately, right now, I can't remember exactly what I was looking for to give a good example. But it happens. I'll use a poor example, but just go with it. Is there a word that means "To fish sneakily"? Nope. So if knowing that your character's fishing is being done sneakily is important to your story or the image you are creating, then go ahead and use it.

It's similar with adjective and nouns. I once read an article about adjectives that referred to a poem about blueberries for an example. One part of the poem describes a girl's apron heavy with and stained from blueberries. The author of the article asked whether the adjective "azure" should be used when describing the stains. The answer was "no," partly because describing the stains as azure sounds like the writer is trying too hard to be poetic.

But over time, I saw something else to the argument. At first I thought, "well, maybe the poet wanted to specify what kind of blue it was to his readers," but then I realized, blueberries are only so many different kinds of blues, and the average person knows what kind of blue blueberries are. They don't need to be told exactly what shade. They already have that shade in their mind. So you don't need to describe the blueberries as "blue," "azure," or anything else. It's like modifying "sun" with "yellow" again. It's not needed. It's implied. We know that the sun is yellow. We even know what kind of yellow.

But, not every noun has a default color. Coats, for example, come in all kinds of colors, and if the coat is important to your character, you might want your reader to know what color it is. So tell us the color. "She wore a red coat."

Remember, the modifier itself should have a purpose for being there.

So, if the verb or noun cannot imply its modifier on its own, consider just using the adverb or adjective. 

2) To keep the right pacing.

Another alternative to adverbs and adjectives is to show us the modifier.  Look at this example:

I walk to the dark wing of the stage.

Is there a word that means "dark" and "wing"? No. You could argue that wings are usually dark, but maybe this isn't during a performance. Your character is on stage helping build the set pieces, and all the lights are on, but there are still some wings that are still dark, despite the light. You could write it like this:

I walk to the wing of the stage. Shadow sleeps between the curtains, on ropes, and now, on me. As I go deeper into one wing, I can't see my feet.

See how I show that it's dark? See how much stronger the writing is? This example would be perfectly fine to use, unless this part of your story needs fast pacing. Showing everything slows down the pacing of your story. So, if you need to kick up the pace, but it's important the reader knows the wings are dark, then by all means, just use the modifier.

Another way to show "dark" would be to use a quick simile or metaphor:

I walk to the wing of the stage--the jaws of some animal that's chewing the night.

When you use similes and metaphors, you imply other things between the lines, in the subtext. By saying that the wing of the stage is like the jaws of an animal, the writer implies something negative about the place and its effect on our character. Maybe, as a stagehand, our narrator feels trapped. She wishes she were a performer on stage, and she resents being on the sidelines. She thinks about how submitting to be a stagehand has doomed her dream of being a performer. It's like her dreams are getting swallowed up, or torn up in the jaws of a beast, and the wings symbolize that. They symbolize that fact she has to be backstage, unseen in the dark. You could take it further and talk about the significance or chewing.

While the metaphor provides faster pacing than my earlier example, it's still not as fast as "I walk to the dark wings of the stage." So gauge what pacing you need. If you need real fast pacing, then use the adjective or metaphor.

3) The modifier is unusual and makes the situation interesting.

Use an adverb or adjective in unusual situations or for surprising turns or phrases.

Let's get back to this example:

"Get your butt in your room right now!" Cynthia said.
We don't need to add "angrily" to the end of it. But what if Cynthia isn't saying these words angrily at all? What if she's saying it seductively? Well, the dialogue itself doesn't tell us that, so you might want to write:

"Get your butt to your room right now!" Cynthia said, seductively.

See how that immediately changes the subject? In my story, I have a character who tends to say negative things with a cheerful demeanor, or he says negative things when he's joking around. I need to clue the reader into that. When my character says, "Sarah's the worst," he isn't saying it in a pessimistic way. In fact, he's fascinated and attracted to how "bad" she is. So instead, I'd write:

"Sarah's the worst," Scott said cheerfully. 

Again, you could show that cheerfulness through the scene to provide context, but that takes up space and slows pacing. You could use a simile or metaphor.

"Sarah's the worst," Scott said like he'd paid her a compliment.
Use adjectives the same way. When people smile, we assume that they're happy, but that's not always the case. Use adjective when there are exceptions.

When her assistant walked in, Elise gave him a smile.

When her assistant walked in, Elise gave him a cold smile. 

4) Use modifiers to create tone and character voice.

When you want to create surprising language or turns of phrases, or create a humorous/witty/sarcastic tone, use adverbs and adjectives to good effect. Read this passage from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (bold mine):

So here's how it went in God's heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story--how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn't die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master's degree that will not improve his career prospects. . .
See how Green uses those adjectives and adverbs to create a dark, humorous tone? Cut them out, and you'd get a very different feel for this passage. In most sentences, "depressingly miserable" doesn't work. It's redundant. Depression is miserable. If you actually wanted to make the reader feel depressingly miserable, you'd show them what was depressingly miserable. But Green doesn't want to make us feel that way. He's using the adverb and adjective to create a kind of dark humor charm. It implies and does exactly what Patrick is doing: making something sound more depressing or miserable than the narrator thinks it is. And the phrase "full-grown adult." All adults are full-grown. That's what it means to be an adult. But the emphasis by saying "full-grown adult" pokes fun at Patrick.

In The Half-blood Prince, if you read the chapter where Harry drinks the Felix Felicis potion, you'll see J.K. Rowling do the same thing. She uses adjective and adverbs to create a humorous tone. (More on that in my humor post that will hopefully be up next week.)

You can use adjectives and adverbs to create irony, irony that either makes us laugh or feel like we've been pinched.

In the John Green example, the story is being told from Hazel's point of view, so that use of adjective and adverbs also helps create Hazel's distinct voice. Adverbs and adjectives may be necessary to create the right voice for your character.

5) The adjective or adverb is doing double duty.

If your adjective or adverb is a telling one, as in it's cluing us in on something bigger, then use it. Look at this example:

He wore a sharp white shirt and red power tie, but his watch was plastic, his cologne a scent sold in supermarkets.

In my sentence, "sharp white shirt and red tie" is contrasting with "plastic watch" and "supermarket" cologne. The modifiers clue us in on what kind of character this is. This is someone who wants to appear professional or rich, but who may not be. Perhaps he's trying to cover up his poor monetary status.

Brandon Sanderson uses adjective this way in his Mistborn series. I don't have the exact lines, so I'm paraphrasing, but one character loves to talk about philosophy and scholarly things, but when we look closely at his library, we see that his books' spines are stiff and straight, none of the pages are dog-eared, there are no bookmarks, and they're gathering dust. This is a character who likes to talk, feel, and pretend to be scholarly, but who actually doesn't put in the work or research to be a scholar.

The modifiers are doing double duty. They're offering a description while providing valuable insight of a character. But it doesn't have to be character related. They can offer insight into settings, themes, or whatever else you can think of. The point is, they are doing more than just painting a picture.

So those are five good reasons to use adverbs and adjectives. 

Next week, I'm hoping to put up my monstrous post on writing humor! I think I have like 15 different techniques about how to write it. I'm not sure. But be prepared to laugh.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I break the rules. That's the best part of writing.

    1. Awe, yes! Little is better than a well broken rule :)


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