Last week, I wordily confessed my wordy sins. I tend to over-express things. I want to make absolutely sure that the reader understands just how funny a scene is in my story. I want my vision of a character’s expression or the sound of their voice – how they say something – to come through so that the reader shares my experience when I imagined up my world and my characters and my adventures.
I want them to see the details.
The problem is that no matter how detailed I am, every reader is going to see something different. If I describe the trees as deepest emerald green, arching their branches majestically over the stone path like a cathedral ceiling, a hundred different readers are going to envision a hundred different emerald, branchy , arching, cathedral tree ceilings. One of the key differences between a book story and a film story is that the reader’s eyes are given a picture in the latter, but in the former, the picture is created in the minds of both author and reader, and that picture changes as a result.
The question is, how much information does a reader actually need to get the general idea? If we authors have conjured up a scene in our heads, we want to guide our readers as close as we can get them to that image. What can we say to get them there?
My imperfect solution is often a succession of adverbs and adjectives, descriptive words that define and direct the scene. I want my characters speaking angrily or dramatically, quietly or excitedly, impulsively or thoughtfully. For instance: “Don’t touch that.” How is the character saying it? Why? What does it sound like in my head? I want my reader to know.
Mark Twain said that if we see an adverb or adjective, we should kill it. My response is on the defensive side. First of all, what did adverbs ever do to Mark Twain? Secondly, I don’t think someone with a pen name has any business telling anyone else that they are being excessive. And thirdly, sometimes an adverb creates exactly the right feeling we want to express, and removing the word removes the feeling.
What I think Twain may be getting at in his extreme way is the virtue of moderation. I have begun to go back through my story, and one thing I am looking for is how often I use descriptive words, particularly adverbs, that can
simply easily be removed. If I take it out, will the meaning change? Do I need it?
Words like “excitedly” and “obstinately” and “incandescently” are large and dramatic and easy to spot. I love adding “rather” to sentences to convey instant irony. Everything can be “rather” something. Of course, if everything is “rather” something, “rather” doesn’t mean anything, at all. I have to be very careful to eliminate excessive “rather”s from my stories.
One of the sneakier adverbs that catches me is “very.”
And now I’m paranoid. Have I used it in this post? Is it lurking somewhere nearby?
Yep. Found it.
I am afraid to admit the number of times I have gone through a story and found a whole host of “very”s living within it. If Twain thinks that adverbs are the enemy, then he would probably say that “very” is their leader. “Very” is not just its own problem. “Very” always has friends – modifying friends in the forms of adjectives and adverbs and more adverbs. “Very” can become “Very, very”, which can then be added to another adverb, another adjective, stretching on and on until the sentence is nothing but a whole lot of “very”s and nothing else.
This is, needless to say, very, very bad writing.
I cannot agree with Mr. Twain that all “very”s are bad. Adverbs have their place, as do adjectives. We must describe and define in order to give our pictures life and depth. There is, however, a great deal to be said for strong, meaningful words that need no trimmings. Something very, very bad is awful, horrid, despicable, or vile. Something said excitedly is blurted, exclaimed, or gasped.
We have at our disposal enough word that are defined in themselves that we do not so often need crutches. Adjectives and adverbs have their place. They need not be always killed. But they will be more effective if used less often, and the story will move all the more swiftly and surely if there are fewer words wandering around in the middle.
(Who wants to count how many adverbs I used in that last sentence?)