The subject of adverb inclusion in fiction seems, at least in theory, to be anything but contested terrain. Stephen King in On Writing states: ‘the adverb is not your friend’ and that they ‘seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.’ The importance of this search for the precision of concise prose is similarly stated by George Saunders, who wrote in his article Paperback Writer for The Guardian (https://goo.gl/NBR7eD) that ‘Specificity, precision, and brevity, applied in language, drive us towards compassion… Conversely, all attempts at world domination begin with weak, evasive, impersonal language.’
The theme of adverbs, wordiness and abstract language is therefore not so much about an aesthetic trend which values sentence-level word economy, or even about a mechanism which underlines the vast functional and allusive power of a single word. While that could be true, it is more interesting to look at this matter from the perspective of how a preference for a more concise approach deals with our current thematic preoccupations – namely the tensions between the representation and presentation of subjects and objects. Reflecting on our use of adverbs can result in an approachable, practical way of understanding action-led, judgment-free sentences as a means to further humanise our writing.
That sounds too abstract though… Here are a two examples:
- She hurriedly walked through the heavily-populated corridor.
The adverb ‘hurriedly’ was inserted here by the writer to give us a sense of speed. We know that much. While that at first may appear to be clear and more precise than just ‘She walked through…’, it undermines a closer reading by presuming to answer the question ‘at what speed did she walk through the corridor?’ (as well as carrying the assumption that the speed is in itself important to the sequence, which might or might no be) while, in fact, leaving us with many more questions than answers. First of all, ‘hurriedly’ adds a layer of value judgement. How fast is ‘hurriedly’? If we were all to imagine this image, would our images match? In other words, is there an essential or universal way of understanding specifically what ‘hurriedly’ really means? Also, does not adding an extra word betray the sense of speed it is looking to create?
If you must build tension, opt for another verb, or build speed through different word choices, paying attention to syllable count and rhythm. Focus on short sentences. Build on the situation that demands such a speed (why not add, for instance, that the character was ‘late’?). This might be a tedious example, but when linked to passages which are more explicitly present to forward character, this can become a technical/thematic problem. For instance:
- He was lovingly attached to his family, especially his dog.
Again, we can ask the questions, what kind of attachment is loving enough to be described as ‘lovingly’?
If we were to make the sweeping generalisation that all attachments are to be so, then why is the word needed at all? Is this attempting to describe something unique to the character? Is it, in other words, presenting the character with as little authorial mediation as possible? Or is it attempting to make us relate to the character through our own understanding of abstract concepts of love? And would such an assumption also not rely mainly on ‘accepted’ or ‘mainstream’ or ‘dominant’ interpretations? And sure, the complication inherent to this line of thinking is that this is an issue with language in general – we have to come to a consensus of meaning in order to communicate and understand each other. But that is not an excuse for unnecessary words, which can only make that consensus harder to achieve. The timid writer is afraid to present story elements as they are within the world, and focuses instead on how they should be read outside of it. Personal and original contextual detail becomes general, less important, less subtle: an adverb. And to not acknowledge the magnitude of a character’s life, to opt for a judgemental reading of a sentence, whether positive as shown in this case or not, is lacking of empathy. It lacks a sense of a character’s apparent freedom to act (or to react or think, if they are not in a position to act), to decide, to live through the causes and consequences of their own actions or those of other characters. We should not disregard the very real world our characters navigate (for them, at least) by building worlds based on assumptions and authorial intervention.
It is not that they are always unnecessary (sometimes the assumptions carried over by adverbs do not get in the way), but adverbs can lead to more general questions than specific answers, and, particularly when dealing with characters, we must understand that even the simplest actions, the simplest sentences, can carry the largest of meanings.
Gonzalo C. Garcia is a PhD graduate from Kent. His interests are neo-liberal reforms in Chile in relation to cultural authenticity, memory, nostalgia, and historical trauma. He worked on his first novel in Canterbury with Scarlett Thomas, alongside a theoretical thesis involving identity reconstructions in indigenous communities living in urban spaces.
He is currently living in Leamington Spa and is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the Warwick Writing Programme. He has just finished a novel called We Are The End, a book heavily influenced by his marked interest in Santiago de Chile, the relationship between video games, digital culture and everyday constructions of narrative. It launches in September with Galley Beggar Press.
Find out more about the University of Warwick Writing Programme