Writing Fundamentals: Adjectives and Adverbs

Published July 24, 2016 by nruhwald

how-to-writeGood writing shows rather than tells. Good description is the means by which writers do the showing.

Verbs and nouns, as I will explain a bit later, can be descriptive too, but our main descriptors are the adjective and adverbs.

Today I’m going to show you how to use these words properly.

Adverbs

Or, in the case of adverbs, how to seek and destroy them.

Adverbs are words which modify a verb. Basically, anything that ends with -ly. Although I suppose some -ly words are adjectives too, but don’t use -ly words even if they are adjectives.

For example, let’s examine a sentence: “He chuckled grimly in the dank chamber.”

A very bad sentence. We’ve established that all adverbs are bad, so lets get rid of the -ly adverb and see what we get. For practicality’s sake, I’m going to call the character in the sentence Stan, even though I’ll just use the pronoun in the sentence. Okay, let’s try out the adverb-less sentence.

“He chuckled in the dank chamber.”

We just made it worse. Now Stan sounds like a yo-yo, giggling in an underground room. The readers still wonder why someone’s laughing in such a place, but now they’re giving him a weird look. Not good. Unless Stan actually is a bit of a nut ball, but let’s assume he’s not.

We need the “grim.” With it, Stan could be a prisoner, plotting revenge. Or he could be an antagonist, thinking about what he’s going to do to the protagonist. It gives the reader something to wonder about and implies conflict. So, we turn “chuckled” into “chuckle” to make it a noun, which makes “grim” an adjective instead.

Adjectives

Now we have: “His grim chuckle echoed in the dank chamber.”

Much better. The sentence is still dramatic, and now we have added an additional description in the form of a strong verb. The chamber is now large and echo-y.

There is some controversy about adjectives, however. Now of course I agree that strong verbs should be the backbone of a good sentence, and adjectives cannot really help a sentence with a pathetic “to be” type verb (was, had been, had, would. etc.) But adjectives have their place.

It is not enough to simply say that your character has eyes, a chin, cheekbones. Well duh they do (unless stated otherwise). You must say what color and/or shape the eyes are. What sort of chin and cheekbones. Not that you have to use those specific details of course.

Some people advocate not describing characters at all, but in my experience readers don’t like this. I have read some fiction in which you could picture the characters perfectly just from what they said and did, but not every writer can (or even should) achieve this. Most writers do describe their characters, and to do so, they need adjectives.

Clearly, there are some instances in which adjectives are downright essential, and other instances in which they make description stronger. But could we remove the adjectives from our chosen sentence?

If our sentence came in the middle of a scene, and we had already established that Stan is a creepy guy, and that the chamber is rather unpleasant, we could do something like:

“His chuckle echoed in the chamber, sending shivers down my spine.”

However, if the sentence comes at the beginning of a scene, the earlier adjective-laden version does a much better job of establishing setting and creating atmosphere.

So, to sum up, when using descriptive words, get rid of adverbs and use adjectives deliberately, when needed.

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10 comments on “Writing Fundamentals: Adjectives and Adverbs

  • This is really good, adverbs are quite evil. I think the one I have the most trouble with is “slowly”, cuz sometimes people do things slowly! It’s hard for me to find another way to describe how slow they’removing.

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  • No, I will never be deterred by any of your propaganda from writing adverbs shamelessly and incessantly in my own fiction.

    Likewise, I unconditionally detest all fiction that avoids adverbs, such as the vulgar drivel of Hemingway and King.

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