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Long Live Adverbs: An Ode to Rebellious Writers

Writersdontcry Special Announcement: Susan J. Morris has Writers Don't Cry programming as an Industry Insider Guest of Honor at GenCon this year. Click here for her schedule.

DEmoticow Book Hunteath to adverbs! Kill all sentence fragments! Eliminate that scoundrel, passive voice! When I went searching the internet for the world’s most important writing rules, I came up with a can full of assault worms primed for combat. There are, it appears, a hundred thousand ways to not write a book. And that number grows with every book put to print, committing more newly minted clichés to the pile of the must-be-burned.

I’m not going to lie: it was a little boggling, trying to keep it all in my head. So I started to write it down--and around page forty-five or so, quickly came to the conclusion that it was hopeless. What writer could hope to write a book that adhered to every last literary law? And if that magical writer managed her Sisyphean task, how would she ever write another, different from the first? It seemed easier to write an unbook, breaking all the rules, than a perfectly proper book!

Fortunately, writers are not known for coloring between the lines. As a breed, writers delight in breaking rules, each having their own favorites to break, and taking a fierce joy in making things work when they’re not supposed to. And with good reason! After all, isn’t that the definition of magic? But, of course, breaking rules takes its own kind of skill—as if you’re going to break a rule, the effect had better be superior. Here are just a few of the ways I’ve seen writers successfully break the rules.

An Addled State of Mind

Ah, passive voice! The bane of editors, condemned by the masses, and feared by writers everywhere, it seeps in through the cracks in the prose, whenever a sentence harbors ambitions of proving dramatic. And it’s no surprise why: some of the most famous lines in history are in passive voice. “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Rrawr, am I right? But just because it can be hot, doesn’t mean it’s always hot.

Passive voice is the Fifty Shades of Grey of the English language—it’s all about emphasizing the recipient of the, erm . . . action. The reveal of the actor is drawn out and delayed either due to its unimportance, or to capitalize on it for dramatic effect. This makes it excellent at portraying a loss of agency, a sense of unbalance, and a separation from a logical state of mind, a state often emphasized well by the use of otherwise unwarranted past progressive.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and bondage: passive voice is a dodgy fellow, and has a bad habit of skipping out of his responsibilities and dragging out sentences far longer than they have to be. It is a rare statement of passive voice that can avoid sounding slightly ponderous—not to mention affected. But the proper application of a passive voice? Can accomplish a level of showmanship no active voice could hope to match.

Punchy Periods

Sentence fragments. My personal favorite. You know what I’m talking about: Writers Don’t Cry is littered with them. They’re punchy, dramatic, and oh-so-wrong. But sometimes, the fast, staccato clip of sentence fragments is just what you need to pull your reader into the frenetic pace of a fight scene, or to emphasize a sudden, unexpected turn of thoughts. Or to add a shot of drama or even humor, when used in a conversational way. And like wit, sentence fragments are at their best when brief and bulletlike. When they get long—readers get lost.

Sentence fragments draw attention to the voice of the character. When used in a conversational way, this makes the tone less formal and can aid in sarcasm, wit, and emphasis. But when used in a narrative way, it forces your reader to occupy the same headspace as your character, much like passive voice. Unlike passive voice, however, sentences fragments mimic the surge of adrenaline, making a fight scene seem faster or a sudden idea more surprising.

Of course, sentence fragments are inherently unbalancing. Like a speed bump in the road, they draw attention away from the surrounding sentences, and using too many can make for a bumpy, jarring ride. But used properly, they will have you catching and holding your breath in all the right places.

Death to Adverbs

Perhaps because of early overdoses in college years, some people have a fierce reaction to adverbs. “To them, if it ends in -ly, it’s on the hit list,” he said softly, acidly, swiftly, fiercely, roughly, angrily, sobbingly, arrogantly, winningly, and whimsically. “And, if they’re bent on killing all adverbs, then chances are they’ve also descended into the depths of deviant dialog tags,” he screamed, shrieked, yelled, crowed, sniffed, scoffed, simpered, whispered, and whimpered. Which puts those on the hit list as well—to be burned and salted along with the paper from which they sprung.

And, there is something to it. An iron hand squeezing the life out of your dialogue, in an attempt to portray it within an inch of how it sounds in your head, is going to leave your dialogue forced at best. Think about it—how well do you perform under such pressure? However, adverbs and alternate dialogue tags can provide the perfect spice to make dramatic moments that much more memorable—and can even serve as markers of particular characters. Just be sure that the adverb or tag you’re using tells us something we don’t already know. Saying he “screamed” something “angrily” when it’s already in bold italics with three exclamation points and text you couldn’t read in front of the tots really isn’t a helluva value proposition. And avoid inserting your opinions of the character with an adverb—that just kinda tells us a little more about you than it does about the character.

Personally, I prefer a sprinkling of adverbs and dialogue tags that describe the actual sound of the voice in a way the contents and punctuation cannot. For example, silkily, sharply, and quickly, for adverbs, or whispered, demanded, and managed. These are almost always guaranteed to add something new to the encounter they describe, and, if not overused, they provide fantastic imagery.

Rules Within Reason

Knowing when—and how—to break rules is an important, empowering, and playful step for all writers. In fact, I wouldn’t count it as rule breaking at all. More like . . . advanced techniques. Techniques that take time and skill to learn how to use properly. And I encourage you to challenge yourself to figure out how you can use every single one of these advanced techniques in such a way as to make it work! Just not all at the same time. And preferably in practice rather than publication.

However, for all the joy rule-breaking may bring, rules really are there for a reason, and it’s not to suck the fun out of life. Every rule was born out of a desire to improve readability and reduce clichés. So, even if you write without a thought to the Almighty Rules, when you go back over your baby, be sure to check to make sure that every time you break the rules, it reads significantly better broken. Otherwise, you’re just a rebel without a clause. Er… cause.

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