“Attribution adverbs rule,” he said sardonically.

“Get off your lazy butt,” she whispered softly.

“I’m not lazy,” he said defensively.  “I’m a creative writing professor, I frickin‘ cross out adverbs all day long!  It’s hard work!”  He set his coke can gently on the coffee table.  “Especially adverbs modifying verbs of attribution,” he muttered woodenly.

She rolled her eyes and barked back, “All the bestsellers use adverbs of attribution, but what do they know!?  You’re the unpublished expert.”

Attribution adverbs, such as, “he said flatly,” are fine, in my humble and yet infallible opinion (imhayio), as long as they’re not out of place omniscient-viewpoint things (words arising from an all-knowing perspective that may not exist in your story).

Attribution adverbs need to be the viewpoint character’s interpretation of something that was spoken.

Ask yourself, “is my viewpoint character coming up with this adverb, or is it me?”

Here’s what I mean…

Example of a decent attribution adverb from the vp character’s perspective:

“‘I love to be brutalized,’ he squeals jokingly. Or is he serious? With that lampshade on his head, I’m not sure.”

The viewpoint character is telling the reader how she interprets the guy’s words.  The fact that she doubts her initial interpretation after she tells you that he was joking, makes this clear, I think.

Now here’s a hack’s “god-like” omniscient adverb in the same setting:

“‘I love to be brutalized,’ he says jokingly, though I’m just stupid enough to think he’s serious.”

Note that it’s a third-party, the all-knowing author, who has informed the reader that the guy is joking. The vp character thinks he’s serious, so she couldn’t have done it.

The viewpoint character is ready to bare her soul to the reader, but an all-knowing voice jumps in with an omniscient adverb and puts objective distance between everyone.

Avoiding omniscient adverbs is especially important in young adult work where many authors write from the limited viewpoint of a first-person character’s perspective (first person narrative) in present tense.  Here’s an example…

I stumble on the rolling deck. It’s icy, 2:00 AM. I’m shaking. “Joseph, I know she’s here. I smell that stupid perfume of hers.” My brother’s pistol feels cold in my hand.

In first person narrative, present tense, it’s as if the vp character were telling the story word-for-word in real-time.  Notice that the vp character is unaware of things she couldn’t logically know. 

But here’s the point I wanted to make: if you’re aware that attribution adverbs (in the first person, present tense narrative, at least) should be provided by the viewpoint character and not by the author, the knowledge frees you to use these taboo things… to express the vp character’s emotion and her interpretation of other’s emotions.

Emotions are the key to most things in fiction writing, I believe.

Ultimately, if a writing professor were to cross your adverb out, you could say to yourself, “This is the way my viewpoint character told me the story. She’s not as well-educated as I am.  If I cheated on her behalf, and made her sound like a university professor, I’d be hiding the truth of who she is.”

Writing as if you are “channeling” the vp character frees you from the university dogma, “Don’t use adverbs of attribution,” and its unspoken corollary, “always feel self-conscious about your writing voice and the quality of your prose.”

When the dear professor does this:  “‘No!’ she said flatly.”

Say to yourself, “The vp character said, ‘flatly,’ I didn’t.”

If this starts a discussion that finally brings your professor to denigrate authors such as Suzanne Collins, his negativity reflects denial of how infinitely more difficult and worthwhile it is to create a riveting story with living characters than to obsess over inbred, outdated writing rules that are being abandoned faster than creative writing classes.

I say, use adverbs whenever your viewpoint character feels them.

Never doubt the voice of your viewpoint character. Don’t think too much about your own writing voice. For the most part, it’s not you, it’s the viewpoint character doing the writing.

M. Talmage Moorehead

“Adverbs are Not Your Friends” Except When They…

8-2010 Coeur d'Alene--Alanna's 011


“They moved wordlessly to and from the tables they were waiting.”  Hmm.  Is there a single verb you could use to get that idea across?  They sneaked?  No.

I listened to an excellent tape where Stephen King read his own non-fiction book on writing fiction.  At one point he said, “Adverbs are not your friends.”

Yet fiction writers use them effectively sometimes.  I think I may have an idea worth sharing on this.

An adverb that adds something to the verb other than simple modification seems sometimes indispensable.  Maybe the secret rule is that “adverbs should be avoided except where indispensable.”

An example from “Hunger Games” by Collins is, “[They] move wordlessly to and from the table…”.  When your people walk and you want to modify how they’re walking, the books will tell you not to find an adverb.  They don’t want you to say things like, “They moved quickly down the hall.”  They want you to find a stronger verb that means, “moved quickly.”  Like, “they ran down the hall.”  OK, I’ve got no problem with that.  But…

In Collins’ example above, I learned something from, “moved wordlessly.” I noticed that the adverb adds something to the walking that IS NOT about the act of walking.  This may be the key to using adverbs (as opposed to pretending they don’t exist, which is what I’ve been doing for years).

And, of course, being an unpublished hack writer, I’m always right about these sorts of things.

Let me see if I can think of other examples of this new adverb usage principle…

“She diced the eggs mindlessly.”  That works, maybe.

“She diced the eggs rapidly,” does not work because the adverb doesn’t add a new dimension or a new unrelated thought to the verb, “diced.”  Zat make sense?

I remember reading a novel in which the author listed one adverb after another to such an extent that I thought he might have been mocking the how-to-write dogma books that say to avoid adverbs like plague.  I wish I had that quote now so I could look at it again and see if, perhaps, each adverb added a new unrelated thought to the verb…

Like, “He walked foolishly, unknowingly, wordlessly, and routinely toward the ice cream box in the refrigerator.”  Genuine hack, but you get the point.

I hope my new insight is correct because I get frustrated writing obediently in the straight-jacket of  current dogma and trends.

M. Talmage Moorehead