The Power of “-ly” Adverbs

Has one of your characters ever done or said something angrily, happily, hesitantly, or any other adverb?   How often do we simply place an “-ly” adverb after a speaker attribution and call it good?  We decide that that word alone is sufficient for the reader to understand the emotion of the situation. I think all authors are guilty of this to some extent, but sometimes what we say with these words just isn’t enough to convey what we really mean.   In fact, I know it is not enough.  So if it’s not enough, then why do we do it?  Well, probably because writing emotion is hard.  The majority of emotion is conveyed through items other than words – like body language, tone, and the overall situation and setting.

Wait a minute, we can describe these things through writing just as easily as we can add a simple “-ly” verb.  We can describe the actions (or results) that are created from the emotion without naming it.  JK Rowling uses this quite well.  Every member of the Weasley family has some part of their face turn bright red when they are angry or otherwise agitated.  We know they are angry by the way they are described.  Everyone reacts differently to emotion because everyone is different.  Not everyone will get red in the face.  Some people will get quiet.  Some people will get mean.  Some people will just explode in a cacophony of noise and then be happy again.  Everyone is different.  Describing these actions is a much more powerful way of describing emotion than by naming it.  We learn so much more about each character and they begin to take on a life of their own as we relate the fictional characters from the page to people that we really know who have the same affectations in real life.  Saying that someone is “angry” or said something “angrily” will mean different things to different people.  So you have describe what meaning of “angry” you are using, without saying it.  Let’s look at the example below.  I use “beats” (side action in place of speaker attributions) to tell part of this small narrative.

“You shouldn’t have taken the staff of power from the throne room!”  Jarome gulped a quick breath and wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. “You know what your father would say.”

Charles raised his head and looked Jarome in the eye.  “I am the heir to the power of the Magaai.  I will do as I please.”

“It is my job to keep you out of trouble.  You’ll not do it again while I’m around.”

Charles arched an eyebrow.  “That can be easily taken care of.”

So what do we learn?  We learned that Charles is arrogant, proud, probably young, and a little malicious.  We also know that Jarome sweats when nervous and has a hard time breathing.  We also know that he is a servant or caretaker for Charles.  Now, did I ever tell you that Charles was arrogant and proud?  No, I described the actions associated with these traits and emotions.  I was showing you, not telling.  There’s that same principle again, show – don’t tell.  Do you see how important that simple concept is?  There are so many ways for a writer to express emotion rather than simply laying it out on the table. It’s like cooking a great meal. The aroma of what we’re cooking, if we’re doing it right, should be enough to alert anyone in the house to what is being cooked, without them having to be in the kitchen looking at it. Mouths should begin watering, noses should be sniffing, and conclusions being made well before the pot roast and potatoes ever make it to the table. It is much the same with writing. That’s why they call it art.

So now what?  Look through your writing projects and see how many times you use “-ly” verbs or used an emotion word directly.  Take them out.  If the rest of your text can stand alone without them there, then you’ve written good emotive text and dialogue.  If the rest of your text loses the emotion that you’re trying to convey, you need to re-write it so that it does, without adding any emotion words.  That’s the true secret to the power of “-ly” verbs – they don’t strengthen, they weaken.

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