These incontinent -ly’s must be annihilated. Exterminated. (Perhaps with fragments.)
Okay, so maybe not all the adverbs in the world need to be taken down to the basement and tortured by the Red Pen Serial Killer. Like an expensive perfume, some adverbs can be lightly spritzed about the body of our manuscript, just enough to turn the Dear Reader’s head and make them swoon (with lust, not their gag-reflex).
Where adverbs definitely need to die, though, is in the dialogue tags.
“Oh my god!” the Scribbler’s Apprentice cries astonishingly. “But how else can I express the depth of my character’s experience?”
“I dunno,” says the Red Pen. “Maybe you could put the action in the actions of your characters instead?”
“Ha, ha,” the Apprentice laughs uproariously, “what a novel idea!” She stares at the Red Pen thoughtfully. “What are you talking about?”
The Red Pen takes a switchblade out of its pocket and begins scraping the blood from under its fingernails. “Are you sure you want to know?”
“Uh, yes.” A bead of sweat forms on the Apprentice’s brow. “I think.”
If a character laughs, do we really have to add “hilariously”? Or “infectiously?” If our character has an infectious laugh, then we should be showing the laugh, not telling our Dear Reader something they can’t picture (unless they picture “infectious” as Patient Zero in the Zombie Apocalypse, in which case, I want that Dear Reader as my Ruthless Critic and I will give them sweets and cheap wine).
Let’s take our character with the (non-apocalyptic) infectious laugh. What does an infectious laugh sound like? Is it like a braying donkey? Does it start with a snuffled giggle, low in the belly, then erupt in a volcano of cackles? Does it sound like a nineteenth century steam train? What makes it infectious? That’s what we need to capture in our writing. Not an -ly tacked onto the end of a word like a lazy afterthought.
What about an example from the dialogue snippet up there? What does “thoughtful” look like? An image will probably come to mind: that friend of ours who always looks as though they’re just about to shout ‘Eureka!’; the woman we saw in the coffee shop the other day, staring out the window and seeing nothing; the frown of concentration on a child’s face as they try to tie their shoelaces for the first time, tongue peeking out of the corner of their mouth. Which, if any, of those images suits our character? What do we want to show our Dear Readers? Whether we’re writing a romance or a horror-filled gore-fest, we’re trying to achieve the same thing: the enticement, the seduction and then the ravishment of our Dear Readers. We crook our finger and invite them deeper inside our story with a flash of leg here and a hint of a smile there. Then we slap them around a bit and lock them in the dungeon until they write us a good review. Wait. I may have got that bit wrong.
Anyway. Physical reactions are some of the clues that gradually reveal our characters to the hungry eyes of our Dear Reader. Another clue, of course, is in our characters’ dialogue.
(I spritzed a little adverb in there somewhere. I’m hoping the Red Pen Serial Killer won’t see it and go all Crazy 88 on its ass.)