This week in the “holy shit I’m going to pull my hair out” section of writing frustrations: dealing with dialogue that is on the same level of awkward as watching a straight person introduce their friend’s girlfriend via “and this is Lily’s… roommate.”
As I said in my last dialogue installment (which was uhhh four months ago hahahahaha let’s not talk about that), I really love writing dialogue, so it’s infuriating to me when I try to write it and it’s just not working. Everything feels stilted, jolting along like a malfunctioning steam engine. To counter that, I’ve come up with some questions that help me, and will hopefully help you too.
What are they talking about? Dumb question, I know. But you’d be surprised how often you can write dialogue and later, realize it doesn’t really… mean anything? Or at least doesn’t add anything. To evaluate this problem, it can be good to assess the two levels of “what are we talking about?” First, there’s the surface level: two people are arguing over where to go to dinner, a group of people doing a project together need to decide how to go about it, etc. If it’s a necessary conversation, something you need to transition or to give the reader information about what’s going on, that’s fine, you don’t have to go any deeper than that. But there’s also the second level: two people are arguing over where to get dinner, and it gets way more heated than it needs to be, and the reader knows: this isn’t about dinner, it’s about the fact that they’re behind on their bills and she just lost her job and they can’t afford to go to dinner but they’re trying to pretend like everything’s fine. A group of people need to decide what to do their group project on, but the reason they can’t come to a final decision is because the one member who held them all together dropped the project, so they go around in circles, unable to confront the fact that they can’t get it done without that one member. In other words, it’s the difference between what’s being said and what’s being implied. When you find yourself asking the question “what are they talking about?” maybe follow the question up with “is there something bigger going on here?”
Does this conversation reveal something about the characters? Sometimes, you’re writing a scene that is very much about having to convey some basic information to the reader about, say, how this heist is going to go down. But that doesn’t mean it can double as something else. A lot of really good dialogue is revealing in a way that doesn’t matter in the moment, but is good to know for later. If Laurel, Tony, Michelle, and Andrea are planning a heist, and Michelle leaves in the middle to go pick up McDonald’s, we know that she perhaps doesn’t care much about it, or doesn’t take much of anything seriously, or just really likes McDonald’s. If Tony yells at her for it, we know he is taking this the most seriously, has the most explosive temper out of all the them, etc. Then let’s say Laurel defends Michelle, says they’ve all been working at this for awhile, maybe they should take a break, we know she’s the peacemaker. Maybe all Andrea this whole time is sit silently in the corner, but that alone is also very telling: she doesn’t get into petty arguments, she can’t be bothered, you get the idea. Maybe this isn’t important right in the moment, after all, the main thing you want from the scene is to explain to the reader how the heist is going to go down, but these elements are important for later; we need to know how they function as a team, and dialogue is a great way to convey that.
Are they talking to the right person?Maybe you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s essential, you know it’s revealing–that’s not the problem. It’s got some of that good juicy character backstory, or it’s that moment when the character finally snaps, but still, it’s not quite working. It doesn’t punch the way you want it to. Ask yourself: who is the character talking to, and why? Let’s say Gwen has been struggling with, hmmm, some deep moral questions in relation to their Catholicism (can you tell I’ve been watching the new season of Daredevil?). You as the writer think, oh, they should definitely be talking to their best friend about this, he can help. Or, they should go talk to their priest, right? Do some good old-fashioned confession. But maybe Gwen is feeling too closed off to go to their friend, is questioning their faith too much to go to their priest (I should really just tag this as Daredevil spoilers at this point). So they find themself in a old records store at 10pm, buy a Grateful Dead track, and they ask the clerk if she believes that God forgives everything. Maybe the clerk answers with something profound, maybe she tells Gwen to go the fuck home and sleep off their existentialism. The point is, Gwen couldn’t ask that question to the people who might come to your mind at first thought. Perhaps they couldn’t say it to anybody at all, and end up going home to their unreasonably cool looking loft for a broke-ass lawyer without a law firm in NYC and drink half a bottle of scotch and ask the stale air if God forgives. Wow, that got dark. ANYWAYS,
These are just a couple questions that might be important when writing dialogue that’s not working, maybe they’ll work for you, or maybe you’ll need to develop your own questions. Either way, I hope these were helpful for you. Join me in either two weeks or four months, who the fuck knows anymore, for my third installment in the dialogue series.
Are you ready for a rant post? No? Too bad. Let’s start, as all white girl raging does, with a little bit of Shakespeare.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty According to my bond; no more nor less.
That’s from King Lear, Act I. Spoken by his daughter, Cordelia. Fucking brutal, yeah? Also, eloquent and lovely and all the other descriptors that people pull up when talking about Shakespeare monologues. You know what else is eloquent and lovely?
Maud went to college. Sadie stayed at home. Sadie scraped life With a fine-tooth comb.
The opening lines of “Sadie and Maud” by Gwendolyn Brooks, inarguably one of the best poets of the 20th century, and the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. You may begin to understand where I’m going with this, but one more for the holy spirit:
The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.
That’s Gloria Anzaldúa, in her book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.”
Now, if you showed someone the Shakespeare excerpt next to the Gwendolyn Brooks excerpt and asked them which one was the better piece of writing, which one do you think they’d choose? If they’re indoctrinated with high school English classes, probably Shakespeare. Everyone knows that Shakespeare is The Standard to live up to, right? Right?
OH DAMN, bet you didn’t see THAT coming, did you? It’s not like I was projecting my intentions from the very first syllable or anything. Here’s the thing about Shakespeare–or Dickens or Chaucer or [insert-any-old-white-man-here]–being revered as The Best: it doesn’t leave room for diversity of perspective, and by extension, diversity of language.
Here are two fun terms that you may or may not know: Standard American English (SAE) and Edited American English (EAE). SAE refers to the “standard dialect” that “most” Americans use. EAE is this same concept, only written down and, you guessed it, edited. The concept of a “standard dialect” is, to put it mildly, fucking wild. It implies two things: one, that there is a standard to be met, and if said standard is not met, that your speech is subpar; and two, that there is a single dialect that an entire country should be using.
The demographic most likely to both speak and enforce SAE is, shockingly, the white upper class. The idea that it is something that should be taught in a standardized form dates back to grammar schools, a convention of the late 19th and early 20th century, where there was a massive emphasis on correct spelling, writing, and speech without regard for actual comprehension of the mode and manner of communication. Working class people looking to move up in the world sent their children to grammar schools so that they would learn how to speak and write “properly,” i.e., like the upper class.
This problem persists today, wherein people with dialects that are outside of the “norm” are often considered uneducated by their oppressors and punished for it. Communities of color and low-income communities receive the worst fallout from these stereotypes.
Now, obviously this is racist and classist as fuck. It is also, as you’ll find all prejudiced views to be, lacking in evidence that proves its veracity. Linguists have proven time and time again that SAE is not a more efficient, effective, or eloquent way of speaking than other dialects, nor does it say anything about intelligence or education. See suggested readings at the end of this post for more information, because this is still technically a blog and I can’t go on a full academic rant with in-text citations without losing some people.
Okay, so back to my dude Willy Shakes. Why is it dangerous for people to put his writing on a pedestal? Firstly, because the guy made more dick jokes per scene than a high school boy, and would have been horrified by the fact that we view his writing as “sophisticated.” Secondly, it halts the development of language to assume that older writing and dialects are inherently more beautiful or valuable than those of modernity.
If you’re still not following, let me say it like this: language is supposed to change. If you’ve disagreed with what I’ve said so far you are a cold, stale, butterless piece of burnt toast. It’s supposed to have different dialects, none of which are inferior. Languages are supposed to blend and merge. If you work “pièce de résistance” into your everyday conversation, you’re a fancy little lad, but if you’re Gloria Anzaldúa–The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta–mixing tongues with all the fluidity and eloquence of a principal dancer on opening night, you’re told to “pick a language,” and “how are we supposed to know what you’re saying?” To that I’ll offer two pieces of advice: if you don’t what’s being said, either look it up, or perhaps consider that you are not the target audience. I know, fellow white people, it’s hard to imagine a world in which every piece of media was not created for us, but it’s the reality of things.
Alright, damn. Long rant. Glad I got that out of my system. I’d just like to end with saying that I am aware that I benefit from the social privilege of speaking SAE as my primary dialect, that I have written this blogpost in SAE, possibly with more swearing than my high school grammar textbooks taught me. That is to say, I am not an authority on the topic, nor have I any first-hand experience in language discrimination.
As mentioned previously, I have attached scholarly articles and other resources below should you wish to learn more from people who are far more knowledgeable than I.
Preface: this is an introductory post to the world of typefaces and how it affects what we read. If you’re already decently versed, it may not be as in-depth as you’re looking for. Regardless, I hope you enjoy!
Let’s talk about something that will not affect you in the slightest as a writer, but that’s fun to talk about anyway because I think we can all appreciate being superfluous sometimes: fonts. As you all know because I won’t shut the fuck up about it, I’m a graphic designer by education. And if you were anything like I was as a child, you spent as much time in a word document choosing a font that was fun and had a lot of personality as you did writing any actual story. Papyrus, Joker, Curlicue, Chiller–anything that didn’t look like it came from a newspaper your parents were reading.
Let’s get down and dirty with fonts. Now, as a writer, the only times you might care about what font you choose are when
You prefer to have a specific kind of font in your writing program.
You write for a blog and need to ensure readability for your audience.
You have some say in designing your cover, and need the typeface to match your genre/tone and the cover art.
Now, as for the first one in the list, I’m going to disregard that. How you prefer to write in your own time is absolutely none of my business–you want to write purple text on a bright orange background in size 60 Pacifico? Have fun! I wish you a high daily word count!
Let’s move on to the second one: ensuring readability for your blog. Please forgive me if the next few sentences seem condescending; I just want to make sure everyone’s on a level playing field when I introduce some vocabulary. Serif fonts are fonts that have tiny ornamental accents on them, like Times New Roman, Courier, or Georgia. They look older, a bit more archaic and proper in the sense that they appear to have been designed for a printing press.
Sans-serif fonts, on the other hand, do not have the fancy extra bits. Helvetica, Futura, and Verdana are some popular examples. These fonts usually look sleek and contemporary in comparison.
So, let’s imagine you’re selecting a font for your self-published book. You find a sans-serif font you like the look of ’cause it’s cool. Before you pick that one for certain, though, you might be interested to know–there’s some research that indicates that swathes of serif type areeasier for our brains to read in large chunks when printed. I’m honestly not sure why; my professors theorized that the ligatures (read: little doodads) on the letters of serifed fonts help us register the word as a whole instead of as individual letters. Either way though, if you don’t want to intimidate or fatigue your readers, picking a serif font might help in readability.
And while you might read that last paragraph and think, “Well, that’s easy then, I’ll just put my book and my blog in a serif font,” I’m going to frustrate you a little by adding that design is rarely so straightforward; it’s become a sort of unspoken norm to have text that’s read on a computer be in a sans-serif font. Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia–all are sans-serif.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. You can write your novels in sans-serif and blogs in serif but the choice should be made in consideration of what tone you’re trying to achieve. Tone is everything when it comes to design. You can have a printed book of poetry in sans-serif, but maybe the forceful hand of Impact isn’t what you’re looking for unless they’re poems about memes? Feel free to use serif fonts on your websites (as we do; hello!), but make sure the content of your site is appropriate for the feeling of serif. I probably wouldn’t make a DIY site using a serif font, for example.
It wouldn’t be a real blog post about fonts without a mention of Comic Sans, but before you rush to find the freshest memes bashing the font (trust me, design school gave me plenty of those), consider for a moment that there is actually some anecdotal evidence suggesting that Comic Sans is useful in helping those with dyslexia read (especially children). Ugly font or not, that’s objectively awesome!
If most serif and sans-serif fonts are considered “body fonts,” in that they are typically used for copy writing, then let’s talk about display fonts.They’re just what they sound like: the big, busy fonts with tons of personality–Lobster, Trajan, Joker would fall into this category. These fonts are usually not intended for a lot of characters at once, which is why they’re good for book covers and logos and website headers.
Writing a steamy romance? Zapfino might work well.
Middle grade sci-fi thriller? Blackout is a personal favorite.
Historical nonfiction? Give Copperplate a spin and see what you think.
Whatever you end up choosing, make sure you’ve purchased the correct license to use it. Designers use a lot of time and labor creating fonts, and they need to be paid for their efforts. A quick search should show you who licenses it, and the purchasing packages for commercial use.
Phew! I think those are the very basics I can pass along for what I know of fonts and writing. I hope something in here was helpful, and if not, then I at least hope you learned something interesting!
Soap Opera Syndrome. It’s a totally real term that I did not make up just now. It refers to drama for the sake of drama, but, more than that, it’s dialogue escalation due to a lack of something better to do. You know the type of dialogue that goes something like,
“Why’d you do that?”
“Chill out. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“WELL IT IS TO ME.”
You stumble backwards, tripping on the previous paragraph to see if you were skimming and somehow missed the build-up to this explosion. Most of the time, of course, it’s not quite that dramatic of a tone switch, but there is still such a thing as escalating a dialogue too quickly.
In my highly dubious opinion, it’s not actually rapid escalation that’s the problem, but a lack of good reason for it. So let’s look at a couple of bad reasons to take it up a notch.
The plot was getting boring. I’ve done this before. You’re writing, it begins to feel stale, alarms start going off and your first instinct is, NEED CONFLICT. Quick, throw in an argument! Create some dramaaaa. The problem is, the staleness was probably not due to the fact that your characters weren’t fighting, it’s that you’ve lost sight of the true conflict and need to work your way back to that.
I wanted to shock the audience. A well-done unexpected outburst is very satisfying. But you have to explain it after. You have to make sure the audience realizes that it was not, in fact, unexpected, but rather they were looking at it from the perspective that wouldn’t have seen it coming, i.e., from a third person narrator who doesn’t have access to that character’s feelings, or a first person narrator who is not the person who had the outburst. Additionally, there has to be damage control afterwards. That can be in the form of quickly sweeping the drama under the rug if your character(s) are the avoidant type, or having them talk about “hey, what the fuck was that?” There’s nothing more jarring than a character suddenly exploding, and then watching literally everyone move on like nothing happened. It’s the same technique as when creators kill off a character for shock: the writer wants the reader to experience a jolt of surprise, but they don’t want to deal with the fallout of that surprise.
My character is a hot-head. Okay. I really dread social situations, but that doesn’t mean I always hate talking to people. People have certain character traits due to their environment, not because they are given them by, say, some all-powerful writer who has breathed life into them and their world. And while quick-tempered people are certainly more likely to be snappy and or have a sudden onslaught of anger, over-use can be annoying, or more oft than not, mess with the tone of the scene. Were things tense to begin with? Are they in a stressful situation? Even a hot-head isn’t going to blow up if they’re lying in bed and watching ASMR videos when someone knocks on their door to ask them if they’ll come help with dinner.
So, solutions? Well, that’s a little trickier. Despite the ease with which I can describe the problem, actually knowing when it’s an issue verses when it’s appropriate is far more difficult. The simplest advice I can give is just to look at every argument (quickly escalated or otherwise) and ask yourself,
why your characters are fighting,
how it moves along the plot, and
if you’ve properly set up the conflict.
So like… the same questions you ask yourself with pretty much any problem you’re having in your narrative.
Thanks for joining me for part one of my dialogue series, join me in two weeks for tips on awkward dialogue!
or, the war between my academic and creative side rages on
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a recent college graduate. Majored in English, minored in convincing people that my major was a good idea. As an English major, I did a lot of writing. Like, a lot of writing. You’d be correct in assuming that this would be useful for a writer, but there are downfalls too.
*Cue academic tone*
In this essay, I will be discussing seven tools used in both creative and academic writing, the habits I have acquired as an English major regarding these tools, and how said habits have both helped and hindered my creative work.
If you happen to write works that require citations, you’re probably familiar with the way one conducts academic research. Combing library databases with keywords that never bring you quite the results you’re looking for, cursing JSTOR for not giving you access to literally anything, and, if you’re a sixty-year-old trapped in a twenty-year-old’s body, getting hyped when the library has a physical copy you can check out (they’re easier to browse, I swear). When I first realized I was unlocking the skill of research, I thought, “Score–this’ll help me with my creative work.” To some extent, that has proven true. I’m better at quick fact checks while writing, instead of shrugging my shoulders and making shit up. I’m better at note-taking, at tracking my sources, at streamlining to find exactly what I’m looking for. I’m grateful for these skills, but there are times when the academic style just isn’t going to cut it.
Example: I’m currently working on a creative project that has me looking into ideas concerning the intersection of psychological trauma and the supernatural. When I first started the research, I naturally went straight to my university’s database, began searching keywords, and downloaded a couple books and dissertations. It didn’t even occur to me that there are other ways to gain information besides wading through a grad student’s (genuinely interesting) work on ghosts in Irish literature. I spent a solid hour reading an article about the history of witchcraft before remembering that I’m not even writing about witchcraft, and another forty-five minutes looking up synopses for horror movies I haven’t seen so that I could better read a piece about childhood trauma and the paranormal. The lessons learned here are:
a) Emily is a giant nerd who likes to learn.
b) Stay focused. When I’m researching for an essay, I know what I’m looking for; I scan an article, and if it doesn’t seem to be relevant, I move on. When researching for a creative piece, I kept thinking, “you never know what’s going to be useful later!” thus allowing myself to delve into a research hole that, while interesting, is ultimately a form of procrastination. Which leads us to…
c) Know when to quit. If I told you I spent a couple hours reading stuff that wasn’t relevant to my story, you can imagine how long I spent with the material that was. Did I need to spend a full week looking into one aspect of a story instead of actually writing the story? No, but it sure was a great way to put off doing the actual writing. And, thanks to my academically-oriented brain, a week seemed like a reasonable amount of time to spend on research. It’s worth mentioning that, for some creative projects, a week or a month or a year might indeed be a perfectly apt amount of time to spend doing research. If you need to know all there is to know about Santa Claus’s origin story, then it might take a while (he’s a complicated guy). But if you’re just doing a quick dip into why we call different groups of birds different names, don’t spend hours learning about English hunting traditions. In an essay, you need to gather as much information on the subject as your schedule permits before you even begin to write it, so that you can make an informed argument from there, but in creative writing, you can only do so much research before you have to… you know, write.
2. Making an Argument
When writing an essay, I continually ask myself questions like, “What is your point?” “What is the argument?” “Why does it matter?” These are valid and important questions; they help me cut out unnecessary information. And actually, they can be very important questions to ask with your creative writing too, but there’s a different way to go about it. In academic writing, I ask myself these questions while I’m prepping, outlining, writing. But in creative writing, I have to save these kind of questions until after the first draft. If I’m screaming at my characters “WHAT IS THE POINT OF YOU?” all throughout a rough draft, I’m probably going to give up, because that’s just depressing.
Regarding the question of argument: a lot, if not most, of literature does not have a distinct argument to speak of. If you suffer from Academia Syndrome like me, it’s such an ingrained thing to want in your writing that sometimes your creative stuff can get… preachy. Preachy is not the same as political–you can have a piece that has a very clear political message that doesn’t involve the characters breaking down the fourth wall and handing you the moral of the story in a neatly wrapped conclusion with citations. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. A Christmas Carol is a hundred and fifty pages of Charles Dickens putting the upper class English into a chokehold and saying, “but really, REALLY, can you stop using your money as toilet paper?”In general, though, the idea of argument is one that should be left to the essay formatting.
Speaking of the essay format, let’s talk prep work. One of the best things that my academic career has taught me is how to plan what I’m going to write. I used to dive head first into stories without any idea as to where I was headed, and while I understand that this is a technique that some people use successfully, I am not one of them. I’m so governed by structure that if I start something without at least a vague idea of where I’m going, there is a 98 percent chance that I will give it up. So thanks to academia for forcing me to do thorough outlining. The one thing to be wary of is being so busy following at outline that you don’t let yourself think outside of what you’ve already planned. When I’m writing an essay, especially if I’m on a time crunch of “If I finish this I can finally go to bed” then I’m going to be following that outline without detour. I’ve done the research, I know my argument, now all I have to do is write. But with a story, it’s much more likely that I’ll realize a massive plot hole, or find a much more interesting way to get from point A to point B, or get deeper into a character’s psyche and realize they would never make that decision, etc., so I’ve learned to leave room for improvement.
4. Sentence Structure
Please compare these two scenarios and spot the differences:
a) A compliment from a professor: “You write such long, beautiful sentences. Look at this one: half a paragraph. Amazing.”
b) Comments that Verb leaves on my stories: “Is there a way to make this more succinct?” “This is a little rambling” and “Good lord Emily this sentence is so convoluted you might as well stick a minotaur in it and call yourself Daedalus.”
For reasons that probably have to do with the fact that the longer the sentence, the harder it is to read, and therefore by some skewed logic the smarter you have to be to parse it, scholarly writing is chock full of unnecessarily long sentences. It’s great, for the sole reason that it means I can get away with sentences that find their purpose 3/4 of the way through like a protagonist in a coming of age novel. It’s also not great because the habit has transferred over to my creative writing, and Verb isn’t going to put up with that bullshit. Of course, the thing you want to be wary of is not long sentences in general, but rather, long sentences that could easily be shorter without losing an ounce of meaning.
Every single scholarly article I’ve ever read has the air of someone who’s sitting in a leather armchair in a study that smells like fancy bathrobes and outdated source materials while sipping on scotch and saying, “Listen darling, it’s none of my business, but logically speaking, if you’re looking at Homer’s Odyssey through the proper historical lens, the sirens clearly represent his lust for sex rather than knowledge, and furthermore, if you’ll just turn your attention to page 407 of Fitzgerald’s translation–because what are we, animals?–you’ll see that blah blah blah…” I’m going to be honest, I (un?)ironically love that tone. It’s interesting, hilarious on occasion, and meant to keep you somewhat objective, though admittedly that fails more often than not. I’ve spent a lot of time replicating this tone, figuring out its trigger vocab words and structure. However, I totally get why a lot of people find it unspeakably boring, and therefore I’ve prepared a three-step process to avoid having it leak into my fictional writing. At this point the blog just becomes me talking to myself.
Project No Fancy Robes Step 1: destroy objectivity. It doesn’t exist anyways, and there’s no reason why your narrator would keep a neutral tone unless, for example, they’re a scholar, sitting in their study, sipping on some scotch while calmly and dispassionately telling you about their battle to the death with a fellow scholar who had the gall to use Fagle’s translation of the Odyssey. I’ve found myself falling into a weird pattern in which I have my narrator justifying or rationalizing other character’s actions simply because I, as the author, know their motives and therefore feel the need to be objective. Impartial narrators can work, but if you’re not using one, don’t go out of your way to make them try and be fair.
Project No Fancy Robes Step 2: don’t point out themes. For the love of god, Emily, don’t point out themes. If you’re using the concept of themes properly, subtly, with a level of finesse that would make Kurt Vonnegut proud, then the reader will be able to figure it out without you putting a big neon sign up that says, “we’re talking about sexism.”
Project No Fancy Robes Step 3: spare the details. That cool fact? That interesting piece of information that you are sure is relevant to your story? It’s not. Cut it. It doesn’t add validity to your argument because you don’t have an argument.
7. Reading as a writer vs. reading as a scholar
This has less to do with the struggle of writing, but since reading is an integral part of writing, I figured I’d mention it anyways. The way I read books as an English major is antithetical to the way I read them as a writer. When I’m reading a book for school, I’m looking at social and historical context, finding symbolism, scouring for an aspect I find interesting enough to write an entire essay on. When I’m reading as a writer, I’m thinking, “wow, I care a lot about this character. Why is that? What did the author do?” “Hm, this section is losing my attention, what went wrong? What can I learn from that?” Both are valid and fun ways of reading, but I have not found a way to do both at once successfully. Sometimes when I’m reading for pleasure I hear the little English professor demon on my shoulder, tempting me to really concentrate on that fire imagery instead of just reading. This isn’t so much a problem as a minor side effect of my academic choices, but it’s worth noting, since it falls under the category of “habits I picked up whilst majoring in English.”
7. Oh my god you just wrote a 2000 word BLOG POST with numbered sections and academic jargon are you even listening to your own advice?
No, I’m not.
In conclusion, some of the habits you picked up while writing for university are bad if overused, or bad for creative writing in general. But if you are by some miracle still reading this, hopefully you got that and this tell-them-what-you-told-them outro is useless, as most essay outros are.
I recently re-watched Dead Poets Society. As always, it was tragic yet uplifting, unique yet cliche. I watched the credits roll by, thinking about the dangers of oppressive systems and the devaluation of art, mulling over the impact of literature and those who teach it.
I also found myself thinking about adverbs. There’s a line in the film, spoken by the English teacher John Keating, “A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. And don’t use very sad. Use… morose!” He’s right, of course. Saying someone is exhausted is far more evocative than saying they’re very tired. Not only that, but it’s a syntactically tighter description. So why are adverbs so frequently banned when they can save you loads of lengthy description? I remember learning to avoid them in my creative writing classes—professors told me that they’re lazy—but what about them is lazier than describing someone as exhausted?
Let’s say you’re trying to describe a student during finals week. You could tell me they’re exhausted. That’s succinct, accurate, and yet it’s not as immersive as saying they are, for example, drowning in the waters of a deep and endless night where sleep evades their every move and a single moment stretches on and on towards an endless horizon of rusty minute hands. Is one worse than the other?
The truth is, adverbs aren’t an unequivocal poison to good writing. The trouble arises from—and here’s the plot twist that you wanted to be interesting but instead is a poor usage of deus ex machina—showing versus telling.
One thing you can do is replace the adverb with specific actions or movements. If you want your reader to know that Jemima was walking slowly, you could just as easily say that Jemima dragged her feet. If Joaquin giggles nervously, he might as well giggle and try to take a sip from his drink, but end up spilling it down his shirt. Like “very tired” versus “exhausted,” the second brings vibrancy to the scene.
But maybe you are correctly thinking that you can’t do that every single time. That’s okay, because there are plenty of other options. Similes can be great for specific description: Jemima walked like she had boulders glued to her feet. Joaquin giggled like he had just told a bad joke in front of his crush. Similes are useful if you want to evoke a niche emotion that the reader is familiar with, but perhaps has not thought of in those terms before.
You can also use dialogue to convey these sentiments:
“Jemima, keep up!” Jimothy shouted from the opposite side of the intersection.
“Joaquin, man, relax. You’re going to ace this interview.”
Now, I’m going to go ahead and put a warning tag on this method, because while you shouldn’t be afraid to use your surrounding characters to tell the audience what’s going on, you also don’t want to go crazy with it. There’s nothing more annoying than a character who is there for the sole purpose of telling the reader information that the author wants you to know but can’t figure out how to tell you, often because the main character doesn’t know or wouldn’t express the sentiment out loud.
Joaquin being told that he looks nervous works well once or twice, but imagine he’s being followed around by someone who’s constantly shouting, “Joaquin, you look tired!” “You seem upset!” “You are elated due to the fact that you just conquered your mental block stemming from a hinted-at childhood trauma that was keeping you from using your pottery-making super powers!” Unless Joaquin has a trusty little robot friend whose main function is to act as a high-tech mood ring—which, now that I’m writing it, sounds dope—then that dialogue would be ridiculous.
Anyways, there are two important things I’m trying to say here: 1) Joaquin the pottery superhero and his mood ring robot are the most interesting duo I’ve ever come up with and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from stealing them. And 2) Most of the time adverbs are bad, but sometimes their simplicity is just the thing you need. As John Keating said, “Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things… just don’t let your poems be ordinary.” Writing is all about knowing every tool you have at your disposal and learning to choose the one that will help bring the most clarity to your work.