Monday, February 25, 2019

Getting the Most From Your Verbs

Verbs are fun. Verbs do things - that's literally their purpose in the world. Every complete sentence requires at least one, and there are a lot to choose from. That alone should tell you their importance. But all the excitement that comes from verbs doesn't stop there. Not only can we choose from the verb grab-bag, we can modify them with adverbs. That's where the fun begins.

A quick reminder about adverbs. The most common adverbs end with -ly, so we can talk loudly, softly, forcefully, angrily, etc., and they all do the job of enhancing the simple act of talking. Adverbs give life and energy to our writing, and we often use them without prompting.

But we can do more with them, and sometimes we do more when we leave them out.

In Ben Blatt's fascinating statistical study of the great authors' works, he noticed that works generally considered classics had smaller amounts of simple adverbs (those ending in "-ly.") According to this analysis, Hemingway used only 80 simple adverbs for every 10,000 words of text (that may sound small, but that's still over 500 in a standard book). Does this mean they are not important? Or are there other ways to get more from our verbs?

Let's take a simple idea and play it out a few ways to see what our verb does with its modifier:

  • I was running quickly so I could beat the approaching storm.
  • To beat the approaching storm, I ran quickly.
  • To beat the approaching storm, I ran like the devil was two steps behind me.

The first sentence is clumsy. It is in the passive voice, as if the person was explaining the situation. The modifier, quickly, is the most exciting part of a sentence where the verb is "was." This would be a good sentence for dialogue, but as we know, dialogue is often brutal with its grammar. (see the post, "Dirty Words (Even Worse Than Swearing)."

The second sentence is perfectly fine. It explains the situation, and the simple adverb modifies the verb. It works, but it's kind of boring. When most people run, they're usually moving quicker than when they don't run, so what did we gain from the adverb? If it doesn't add to the sentence, why use it? We should also consider whether or not more can be extracted from this sentence. Right now it works, but can it gain more mileage?

The third sentence forgoes the adverb for a figure of speech, using a simile to enhance the verb. Not only do we modify the verb without using an adverb, we bring something new to the table. With a simile describing the devil two steps behind, this also affects mood by offering a sense of urgency, perhaps even fear. Paranormal thrillers would benefit from a simile like that because it contributes to the genre. A lighthearted comedy, however, might feel a little off-balance with such a simile, and would sound better with my favorite, "I ran like a runaway beer truck." Lighter and more entertaining, in line with the genre. And no adverbs are used.

There is nothing wrong with adverbs. They are opportunities to enhance the sentence, but are far from mandatory. If we are running, "quickly" adds nothing but "clumsily" gives dimension. And if a figure of speech would serve the same function but enhance the mood or speak to the genre, perhaps the adverb can take a rest.

One last note: The most important takeaway from this post should be to try out new ways of saying things. Experiment with techniques. Allow yourself to write new things. Succeed. Fail. Try again. Develop the things you like. Before long, you will know exactly when you need an adverb or when a simile would fit better. And almost certainly, you will write something better than running like a runaway beer truck.


2 comments:

  1. I'm glad you felt inspired by Carolyn's writing to create this post. I appreciate the examples you provided.

    Did you check out the two adverbs I underlined in your writing last week?

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    Replies
    1. I did look into my own adverbs in my last story, and decided they could be stronger. So, as a writer... I grew.

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