Thursday, January 13, 2011

Adverb Abuse - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

An adverb as you probably know, is a word that describes a noun.  Mark Twain once said that, "Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer." The problem is that in general adverbs are a sign of weak verbs. Well, it may come as no surprise that the Nancy Drew books are chock full of adverbs.

Nancy Drew 04: The Mystery at Lilac InnNow using the occasional adverb isn't a crime. However in the course of The Mystery at Lilac Inn:
  • Maud walks away rapidly.
  • Nancy greets someone pleasantly.
  • The police chief quizzes salesclerks briefly.
  • Nancy's car leans precariously.
  • "Hi Dad! How good to hear you!" Nancy says happily when her father calls on the phone.
  • She thinks indignantly that the driver who forced her off the road should have his license revoked.
  • The girls finish dressing quickly (even though there doesn't seem to be a reason for them to hurry).
  • She greets the gardner pleasantly.
  • The new waitress at the Inn smiles shyly.
  • "We'll have to douse it," John said tensely. "The whole row [of buildings] will burn down if we wait for the fire department."
  • She kisses her father affectionately.
  • A policeman rubs his chin thoughtfully.
  • She climbs out of a car quickly to inspect some damage.

These aren't even a good half of the adverbs I found. I've left out those which seemed to work and least somewhat, and I didn't bother paging all the way through the entire book to create this list. The sentence which caused me to begin this rant was this one:
She described vividly her encounter with her double. John listened intently.
Two adverbs in two sentences? Eeek! Run away screaming!

So if we were the writer how could we fix all this to clean up the writing?

Does Nancy need to describe it "vividly"? Could she just describe it? Could she "detail" it, implying that she gave him all the details? Does John need to listen "intently"? Could he merely "listen"? Or if we need to show that he seems interested in the exchange, can we say that he questioned her. Maybe something like:
 She described her encounter with her double. John listened, questioning her on the details.
Now lets go over the rest of the list.

When Nancy greets folks "pleasantly" couldn't we just say, "Nancy greeted them," or just have dialogue do the work and have her say, "Hi!" Or perhaps, "I'm Nancy Drew, she said with a smile."

With Nancy saying, "Hi, Dad! How good to hear from you!" do we really need to be told that she's happy to hear from him? Once again the dialogue does all the work. In a similar vein, when she kisses her Dad affectionately, most kisses between a daughter and father would be assumed to be affectionate. If the kiss is sarcastic, tepid, passionate (eww) only THEN do we need to know that the kiss is something other than it might seem.

On the subject of no brainers, John saying something  "tensely" when the buildings are afire is a complete joke. Having recently (omigosh an adverb) lived through a fire, I can darn well tell you that someone is going to be tense when then a fire may be ready to spread. Why not use a stronger verb, however. "He snapped." would do a great job of showing that he's tense. Or once again, just leave it to the reader and trust the dialogue.  "We'll have to douse it," John said. "The whole row will burn down if we wait for the fire department."

In other situations we have to ask ourselves how important the timeline is as it regards the plot. If Nancy douses the flashlight quickly (as she does at one point) this adverb can help us to understand that she's nervous and doesn't wish to be seen. However is there any decent reason to tell us how long it takes the police chief to quizz the salesclerks? Do we care how long it takes the girls to dress for dinner? No, on both accounts. Both sentences read better with the adverb struck out.

Regarding the cop and his thoughtful stroking of his chin, this mannerism is a cliche all on its own. How about, "a thoughtful look came into his eyes" or "he stroked his chin, taking a moment to think."

When Nancy gets out of the car to inspect damange, why "climbed quickly" when a stronger verb such as "leapt" or "jumped" would give us the same picture in fewer words. And since she's driving her signature blue roadster, "climbed" would really only be appropriate if she were stepping from a tall wheelbase truck or van.

I'd be indignant if someone forced me off the road as well. Why not just "Nancy was indignant. 'They should take away his driver's licence," she muttered.

The  few times that the adverbs are necessary for the plot, could also be done with more polish:

As Maud walks away rapidly, we are expected to understand from the dialogue that she is angry. Why not, "she swished away in a huff" or "her heels clicked against the floor as she made her retreat," or just, "she stomped off toward her room,"?

Again, with her attitude being somewhat of a plot point, rather than having her "remark pointedly," let her gestures and actions speak.  "She raised her brows," "she smirked," "she pursed her lips" or any of a few dozen gestures might have worked.

When Nancy's car leans into the ditch, its obvious that this is a tactic to inject some drama. After all, Nancy is being forced off the road. But try something more graphic, like, "The car teetered on the edge of the ditch. Nancy's stomach clenched and she braced herself for the vehicle to topple into the roadside mud."

The new waitress is also a plot point, as is the fact that she has a shy manner, but why can't she, say something, "with a shy smile." Or if the writer wants to push the point, perhaps something like, "she seemed self conscious of her bottle-thich glasses and Nancy wondered if the girl had the energy and gusto to work out as a waitress."

As a last note, sometimes adverbs are useful and necessary. Whenever possible, prune them from your writing. There's often a better verb or a better way to phrase what you want to say. If you use them, use them sparsely and with care.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

No comments:

Post a Comment