Adjectives, adverbs, and imagination

I am, technically, about three years into my “taking writing seriously” journey. It was just about this time in 2012 when I decided I needed to drop out of my master’s program. Writing was the somewhat decrepit life raft, leaky and not very sturdy, upon which I landed. Frankly, it sort of amazes me that three years have passed, although that first year was pretty much lost in a blur of tears and depression. But still, I have learned a lot. I may not be the writer I want to be (yet), but in bits and pieces, occasional lines, steps forward and then back, I think I’m getting there.

One of the areas I feel like I finally understand in a more developed way is the oft-repeated, oftener-ignored advice to avoid adverbs. There are basically two conflicting “rules” about this that you’ll hear in critique groups. One is to use stronger verbs instead, i.e. instead of “walk slowly,” “trudged.” Of course, if you replace “said angrily” with “raged,” you’ll hear that you should avoid using dialog tags except “said” and if you see how those two rules work together, congratulations, you’re smarter than me. I think Stephen King basically decreed these rules in On Writing and to the best of my recollection, he claims that writers use adverbs out of fear and timidity.

Maybe.

But I think writers use them — or at least I used them — in an attempt to make my story as clear, as precise, as accurate a depiction of my image of the story as I could. And I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to do that. More than that, the story is better when I don’t. It’s better because it leaves the reader more room to bring her imagination to the game.

Here’s an example from the first draft of the book I ought to be working on right now:

“They are evil spirits,” she said. “And your Noah is clearly possessed by a djinn. He creates ifrits wherever he goes.”
“He doesn’t create them,” Joe protested. “You know that.”
“We have had this argument before. A thousand times before. I know an ifrit when I see one.”
“Are you saying you and Misam are evil spirits? If you’re not, why are the rest of us?” Joe said, with strained patience.

I’ve used “protested” and “strained patience”. But what would happen if I didn’t? In those words, I’m revealing information about Joe, and his relationship with Nadira — that it’s ongoing, argumentative, and strained. The reader might decide from this that Joe is kind of a jerk. Or that Nadira is, depending on your perspective. If she or he is left with just the dialog, though — without *my* interpretation of it — they get to decide what it means, how it sounds. And what they’ll bring to that decision will come from their imagination, not mine, which means it will be stronger and more meaningful to them.

When we use adjectives and adverbs, we narrow the possible scope of the story. We lose the opportunity to let it resonate in a different way for the reader. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes it’s essential. If I need the reader to see a magical fairyland, I’m not going to depend exclusively on nouns and verbs. But sometimes — and more often than I’ve ever realized in anything I’ve written — we can rely on the reader to fill in the story, in the way that will work best for him or her.

Take a line like this one: “I didn’t understand what you meant,” she said.

If the reader would be angry in this situation, maybe she hears that line in her head in an angry voice. If the reader is a gentler type, maybe she hears it in a more placating voice. Either way, she’s going to identify more with the character because the character is more like her. That’s because she’s bringing her ideas, her imagination, to the creation of the character.

Actors understand this. The same role gets different interpretations, has different meanings. Is Hamlet an idealistic activist or an incestuously-conflicted son? Shakespeare didn’t dictate the answers, which probably has a lot to do with why the play is still performed hundreds of years after it was written. On the other hand, the simplest possible way to for me to establish the distinction between those two approaches was with two adjectives and an adverb. It’s not wrong to use them, but I finally understand how avoiding them does more for your writing than just keep it simple.

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