Friday, January 11, 2008

The Proverbial Adverb-sary

At a recent Wyrdsmiths meeting, we were discussing a story that I'm working on, and the point came up that I use rather a lot (too many) of adverbs and adjectives--which I do, I'll happily admit. I certainly can see the need to cut down the number of descriptors overall throughout the text.

But. I'm working on a scene now where a boy (12) enters a room full of (socially) powerful men, and realizes that he has been brought here by them, though he doesn't know why. He is, of course, terribly nervous. He recognizes his teacher from back home as one of the men, though. This is a bit of the interaction:

"Here was Elias, though, his teacher from back home, smiling at him encouragingly. He managed to smile back, fingers twisting the fringe of his mantle."

Now, when we smile, we often try to communicate something along with that to the recipient of our smile. Do we find that person attractive? Are we commiserating over an awkward situation? Do we want to let them know everything is all right? Are we proud of them? Those are just a few possibilities, and our faces look different for each of them--yet each could be described, accurately, as "smiling". So here, it seems necessary to me to note that Elias smiles "encouragingly".

Also, the boy is terribly nervous, and his smile in return is going to fall flat--it just happens, when we are tired, angry, nervous, disquieted, that we don't quite nail that smile telling someone that we agree with them. Muscles are much less likely to lie than words, and we've all seen someone whose mouth turns in a smile though their eyes and other facial muscles belie the expression.

Now, that last clause: "fingers twisting the fringe of his mantle." I could just as easily have replaced it with one word, "nervous", but then it would be A) just another adjective, and B) it wouldn't have been nearly as visceral. This way, I can establish physical tics that reveal the nervousness, which give a better physical picture of what's happening.

Does this work? Yes. Do I need this much description? That's probably more a matter of who is reading the scene, what he or she brings to it--how implicit, for each reader, the idea of nervousness is when confronted by a room of older, powerful people, and what that nervousness means. People handle that sort of emotion differently.

I'm not sure this solves my dilemma, but equally, I'm also sure that this is going to be an ongoing struggle for me. I tend to over describe certain elements, leaving others out almost entirely.

This isn't a new problem, though. Most writers face down a tendency to over-tell certain elements, at one point or another. So tell--what techniques have you come up with to circumvent the easy descriptor? How have you learned to shape your story so this kind of information is more implicit, less pasted on? Or conversely, what issues have you run into in trying to convey the nature of a scene?


Kelly Swails said...

I like your paragraph, Sean, but I don't like "encouragingly." You could say something like "...his teacher from back home, smiling at him. He looked like he did when he prompted Elias through a tough math problem that Elias was sure would be too much for him. He tried to smile back, but the gesture felt fake" instead. Here you've got a little bit of characterization on both people in one sentence.

As for me, I suuuuuuuck at the metaphor. Truly terrible at it. Some writers can make a comparison between, say an orange and a field mouse so well that I say, "of course. Why haven't I thought of that similarity before?" It's something I'll still be trying to master twenty years from now.

ann-leckie said...

He looked like he did when he prompted Elias through a tough math problem that Elias was sure would be too much for him.

In other words, encouragingly.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the extra characterization, but I also have no problem with "encouragingly." If it had been one of a string of adverbs, with no sign of other approaches to description, then it would have made me twitchy. But the goddess of language gave us adverbs for a reason. IMO.

Which approach you take--the longer sentence or the single adverb--can't, in my opinion, be decided by recourse to a simple rule. You need to ask yourself, how important is the smiler to the story? Is he a major character or a spear-carrier, or something in between? How much attention do you want the reader to pay to him at this moment? What's your word limit, or how long is this scene already? How much other description and characterization have you already done?

Just my take on it.

Tim Susman said...

My take on this would be: how does the boy know the smile is encouraging? Maybe it reminds him of a smile from another situation (as in Kelly's example), or maybe there's another cue, like a nod or a wink. That's what I would try to bring out in the text.

Then again, I'm just reading Stephen King's "On Writing," and he rails against adverbs in it, so I might be biased. I do think that in this case, you've got a chance to explore more of the relationship between the two, or to use the relationship to make the gesture more meaningful.

Douglas Hulick said...

I don't think it's matter of cutting out adverbs and adjectives all the time, Sean -- just when they don't add to the scene or action they are being applied to. In this example, it arguably *is* carrying some water, in that it implies or reminds the reader of the history between Elias and the narrator. However, that won't be the case all the time.

You need to decide when an adj/adv is telling the reader something they need to know vs. something you simply want them to know just because that is the way you see it in your head. If the reader knows the context and can read the dialog/situation, a lot of times the added cues aren't needed. In other words, you have to trust your reader to "get it".

One way to write it without any adjectives (and I give this only as food for thought -- I'm not trying to rewrite your scene) would be: "Here was Elias, though, smiling at him as he had so many times over their lessons in the past. But all X could do was stand there, his fingers twining themselves in his mantle."

Heaven knows, I put in plenty of adverbs and adjectives myself, especially in the first draft. I would say try to be conscious of it now, and be ruthless about it later when you are going back through everything.