Writing Thoughts 2: Description & Adverbs

notI hate adverbs.

At least in fiction, I hate adverbs, because they are often used out of place. Adverbs are the tools of weak writers who don’t know how to otherwise convey a story. Let’s take two paragraphs for example.

John was furious, and banged his fist on the desk. The force was so great that the handset fell from its place on his phone, but that was fine–he didn’t care, because the caller was on speaker. “Who in the hell do you think you are?” John shouted angrily and slammed the receiver back where it belonged–an empty gesture, but it made a lot of noise on the other end and made John feel a little better.

Just some bullshit I made up. What is John mad about? What did the caller say? What are they discussing? I don’t know, but, to be honest, I’d kinda like to find out. Anyway, there’s one adverb in that paragraph that doesn’t belong, that has no place being there, and that is there only as the tool of a weak and timid writer.

“Angrily” doesn’t belong, and many, many writers have a habit of following each “dialogue verb” with an adverb, to let us know how the person said it. But let’s remove the word “angrily” and see if it becomes any harder to understand.

John was furious, and banged his fist on the desk. The force was so great that the handset fell from its place on his phone, but that was fine–he didn’t care, because the caller was on speaker. “Who in the hell do you think you are?” John shouted and slammed the receiver back where it belonged–an empty gesture, but it made a lot of noise on the other end and made John feel a little better.

Was there ever any doubt that John shouted that angrily? Did any reader out there think that John might have shouted it happily or joyously or jokingly? The opening sentence is a little abrupt for my taste, but I did that for a reason. It’s a single paragraph–in a single paragraph, it’s going to be very difficult to both set the emotional tone and have dialogue. In a typical work of [good] fiction, the preceding paragraph would set the emotional tone, leaving us able to omit “…was furious, and…” from the sentence. Since there’s no preceding paragraph to use John’s actions to convey his anger, it was necessary in order to explain why he’s banging his fist on the desk.

Of course, we could also set the emotional tone afterward, and have this as the opening paragraph of the story, couldn’t we? Yes, but that wouldn’t be advisable. Once this paragraph has been read, it has happened in the mind of the reader, and the reader already has an image in their head of how the scene happened. If you go adding context to scenes that have already happened, you’re effectively retconning the image in the reader’s mind, and that’s not a good idea–it will become hard for the reader to trust the author over time.

But what does John look like? What does the desk look like? What color is the phone? What does John’s voice sound like? Is John in an office? What color is the rug? Is there a rug? Is there a window behind his desk, or a bookcase?

I could certainly write a few paragraphs detailing John’s office, but… why should I? I didn’t even have to write that John is in an office, and yet 99% of the people reading that paragraph will picture John in an office. They will have, in their mind, their own idea of what that office looks like. My image of John’s office has a large window, with the blinds pulled down and the setting sun casting its orange-red light into the room through the blinds, and the office is filled with the smoke of John’s cigarette. Does that resemble your office?

If I start describing the office, I force my idea of the office into your head, and it takes time to do that. How completely do I want you to see my image of John’s office? Does it matter if you have a bookcase where I have blinds and a window? Does it matter if I have plaques and college degrees where you have pictures of his family? Probably not. If some of these details are critical to the story–perhaps someone is going to aim a lasered scope through the window in an attempt to assassinate John, at which point the presence of a window and its position would become very important–then they should be included, but if they aren’t critical, then why not let the reader keep the reader’s image of the office?

When I told you about John shouting into the speakerphone, it was no longer just my story–it was your story, too. It was an experience we had together; it was an experience that we shared. Your image of John and his office are every bit as valid as my image of John and his office. For just a brief moment, I conveyed something, across untold miles and unguessed amounts of time, directly from my mind to yours. And from the seeds I planted, you grew your own garden–it is your garden. That is your John, your John’s office.

Patronizing, insulting laughter echoed from the speaker. Then with his thick accent and gruff, cracking voice, Dmitri said, “I am the one who knows your secret.”

I initially had, “with his thick Eastern European accent and gruff, cracking voice, Dmitri said…” but then I realized–there was no need to point out that he’s Eastern European. Even if that is critical to the story (and it looks like it will be), with a name like “Dmitri,” he’s not exactly French, you know, or Iranian. We can always return to it later and talk about Dmitri’s teenage years in Ukraine and how he stumbled across this secret in Minsk, Belarus. How Dmitri is a good person, but he learned this dangerous secret, and spent the next five years being chased all over the world by John’s people (unbeknownst to John), until finally he’d had enough and decided it was time to wield the secret to his advantage. All of this can be used to say that Dmitri speaks with an Eastern European accent. We could also just give him a last name that is also distinctly Eastern European; there are many ways to do it.

In the vast majority of my fiction, I stick with “said” as the verb to reference spoken dialogue, though I occasionally use words like “whispered,” “shouted,” and “screamed.” As much as I would hate seeing “Amy said loudly,” I’m totally fine with seeing “Amy screamed.” That’s a pretty large difference, isn’t it?

“Why won’t you leave me alone?” Amy said loudly.

“Why won’t you leave me alone?” Amy screamed.

An enormous difference, built solely from three words. I’m okay with words like “screamed” because they set the emotional tone actively–to scream is an action.But let’s not forget the bad writers who would say:

“Why won’t you leave me alone?” Amy screamed loudly.

Don’t pretend like you’ve never read something like that–bad writers are all over the place, and I’m sure you’ve read such a thing before. I know I have. This, of course, would be as opposed to screaming quietly? And screaming gently?

And whenever it’s possible for a verb to set the emotional tone, that’s fantastic. But be mindful of verb tones–one can’t ooze beauty, after all.Let’s look at the first example again, because I don’t think it was really necessary to point out so brazenly that John was furious, and it’s going to bother me if I don’t go back to that and look again.

John bashed his fist against the desk. The force was so great that the handset fell from its place on his phone, but that was fine–he didn’t care, because the caller was on speaker. “Who in the hell do you think you are?” John shouted and slammed the receiver back where it belonged–an empty gesture, but it made a lot of noise on the other end and made John feel a little better.

Ah, that’s better. See? It wasn’t necessary anyway to so awkwardly set the emotional tone. The reader has no doubt–John is not happily bashing his fist against the desk, after all. He’s not pounding the desk, which could be a celebratory gesture–he’s bashing his fist against the desk, which leaves no room for guessing: John is angry. If that wasn’t clear enough, he did it so hard that it knocked the receiver off its base.

This is, of course, the benefit of the second draft. It could be cleaned up further and refined more, but I don’t care to do it, because I’m not trying to present an example of a great piece of fiction. I’m trying to draw attention to the use of adverbs, descriptive verbs, and setting/character descriptions.

2 thoughts on “Writing Thoughts 2: Description & Adverbs

  1. I would say I hate reading what I already know. John is furious, he banged his fist, he doesn’t care about the result. Am I as a reader going to assume anything other John shouted angrily over the phone? So putting that adverb is telling me something I already know. Now if John shouted in a way other than angrily then using an adverb there is good. It clarifies that John is acting in a way other than what is expected based on what was written before.

    The same with saying “Amy screamed loudly”. Why put loudly in there? Its patronizing because the writer is telling me I am stupid because I don’t know the people scream in a loud way. Therefore they need to clarify that to me so I know exactly what is going on.

    In my opinion that is true. It doesn’t matter if my version of John’s office matches your version of John’s office or that there is even a office. That is the beauty of reading. In that it allows me to be creative about things that don’t matter in the story. To take that away by describing every detail about the image you have takes that away and makes it boring. Like listening to someone who goes on and on and never getting to the point.

    I think its a fine line because we do need to add more than what it is need to properly set the mood. I could rewrite your paragraph about John as follows

    ‘John bashed his fist. As a result the handset fell. He didn’t care. He said “Who in the hell do you think you are?”. Afterwords John slammed the receiver. Which made John feel better.’

    Still describing the same events, but as boring as reading an instruction manual for a computer. We do need adverbs, descriptive verbs and descriptions about the setting and character to make the story come alive. To set the emotional tone like you said for the reader. But not too much that that reader is bored with reading stuff that doesn’t matter. That to me is what makes expressing anything a challenge and fun at the same time. Trying to find that balance that works to convey my idea to another person and engages them at the same time.

    • I can’t think of any off the top of my head–which is probably for the best–but I know I’ve read writers before who said things like “Amy screamed loudly” and stuff like that. With some novels, it’s like they just printed the first draft. Most of my blogs are first drafts, but my fantasy novel is on like draft 5, I think. And I think I’m going to start making it available online, because my other things aren’t coming out fast enough to really “give me anything to offer people,” and that novel is already finished. Staggering its availability as weekly chapters on Patreon for Patrons is what I’m thinking, since it gives me time to finish Dancing in Hellfire and start writing something else, in addition to not destroying the possibility of getting it published.

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