Is there such a thing? Duh, of course. Many writers will tell you adverbs are weak! There’s always a better way! And nine times out of ten, there is. Adverbs can distract, adverbs can crutch, but most importantly – adverbs can help. How?

I’ve been reading The Stand by Stephen King the last few days. It’s really good. It has a ton of adverbs. Those don’t correlate of course – my training as a creative writer to loathe adverbs has me point one out every time I see one. The Stand is not a prose masterpiece by any means.

Let’s try an example:

I walked across the bridge determinedly.

I don’t like it. Is there anything wrong with it? No. It could just be, well, better. An adverb is a short cut. Think of all the qualities that make up determination – a strong facial expression, deliberate movements, intense eye contact; that’s just covering the physical attributes too, think of emotions: no fear of failure, focus, no weak thoughts, etc. Whatever. Just think about all the things you could be saying, but can’t, because it’s all redundant thanks to your adverb.

I walked across the bridge. Each stride I took, I planted my foot firmly on the ground, my eyes locked onto the dark figure on the other side. He was standing still, looking back at me, his gun pointed towards the ground. I furrowed my brow and frowned as I walked, lowering my head; my hands formed tight fists and my fingernails dug into my palm. A dark cloud gave way to the evening sun, blinding me, but not slowing me down.

There’s so much more you could add to this, too. Inner thoughts. Emotions. Scenery. Metaphors and similes. Smells (hell, why not).

The minimalists out there will obviously reject my idea, and that’s totally fine. Adverbs aren’t against the rules. They are a legitimate part of our language, just like everything else in it. In that case, what’s a “proper’ use of an adverb?

The lion roared furiously.

The cat purred softly.

I consider these to be better uses of adverbs. They don’t distract – that much, anyway. The thing that sets aside “proper” use as opposed to “improper” use is that these words don’t feel out of place. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the common uses of adverbs are the best ones. But even then, you could always do more with a sentence than use an adverb, it’s really up to your discretion. Don’t be afraid to use them in conjunction, too – especially with metaphors and similes.

The US government is in debt. Gas prices are still assaulting my income (or lack thereof). The Red Sox and Cardinals are in the World Series – again. I can’t find a job.

The world is as it should be. Especially that last part, that’s pretty important. I’m stuck in a mindset of wanting to have a job, but not wanting to suffer through unskilled manual labor just because I don’t have a college education. My actual credentials and publishing history (hey, one still counts) doesn’t matter if I don’t have a degree. Yeah, it’s a work in progress, but it’s going to be a while – I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

In the mean time, I’m scrounging the internet for some writing opportunities. I can’t find anything. Either I’m too picky, or I’m not looking hard enough. Or both. Who knows. Besides, what’s the point? The writing field is insanely competitive. If I was an employer, I would definitely pick someone with years of experience and a Master’s degree over some college kid who thinks he knows a thing or two about writing.

And, actually, I don’t. None of my information is concrete; it’s all intuitive. I could probably pass a creative writing exam, but only because of educated guesses. And I’d still miss a lot of easy stuff.

So the point I guess I’m trying to make, is that I want a job. But I can’t have what I want. I’m not there yet. I don’t have the certification, the experience, whatever the hell employers really want in their workers.

I’d be better off applying at fast food joints. I have six months of restaurant experience. That’s more valuable than anything I have, if my affirmations are correct.

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Ben, your writing is really good, but some of the things that happen are pretty unbelievable.

Yeah, no doubt.  I like to ease the pain of writing a scene by nudging the characters in the direction I want them to go. That often comes with exaggerated responses, strange actions, shit like that. Of course I can excuse this away by dubbing them flawed, or saying that their traumatic childhood caused them to not fully grasp societal expectations, but I’m just bullshitting to save face.

So how do you write believable scenes? I don’t know.

As I’ve said before, your characters are not puppets. They’re people. They have intentions, goals, desires, wants, needs, et cetera. All of this should be taken account for when writing a scene. You’re not writing your story to get from point A to point B. In fact, sometimes I like to start with just a point A. Sometimes I like to get a few characters, have a point A, and see what happens. Stephen King writes his novels without an ending in mind. This might lead to some deus ex machina, but that only happens when you write yourself into a corner. Which is really easy to do, by the way.

So, back on topic, let’s craft a character who is going on a date. Her name is Heather. She’s meeting a man for a blind date. For any women out there, I apologize for my inability to write a woman. As a critic once said, “all your women are either shrews or submissive.”

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Let’s give Heather a little interview. You’re the reporter. So, Heather, tell me about yourself.

Well, I’m 21, I grew up in the panhandle of Florida with my momma and poppa. We were always far away from relatives, the closest being in Texas, so we were kind of isolated out there. I made some friends in school, but not a whole lot, and I’ve always thought a lot about getting married. My momma rode me hard on that – Heather, one day you’re going to get married, and I’m gonna want some grandkids before I croak.

Did you feel pressured into getting married?

Nah. I kind of idealized it. I paired my first name with all of my boyfriends’ last names. I was always looking forward to the day when I would get hitched, and who would be Mr. Right.

Do you think this blind date could be Mr. Right?

Well, I don’t have a lot of time to date anymore – I work close to 60 hours a week, and I don’t really have time to get out and seek a partner. Any free time I get I dedicate to my close friends, and as you can expect, I don’t have a whole lot of free time.

Have your friends tried to hook you up?

Oh yeah. They always think they’ve found the perfect match for me, but I’ve always been weary of their choices …

And so on.

Now when you place Heather into that blind date situation (provided, of course, you as the author have done the same process with the mystery man) you can be sure to have a much better understanding of how your characters would act and react.

It’s all about getting inside their head. For me, anyway.

This is something I feel a lot of people struggle with, including myself. Now, when I mean character descriptions, I of course am talking about exposition aimed at their appearance.

Billy is an old man who lives on a farm. His hair is gray and he has wrinkles on his forehead.

The primary issue is fitting in this detail in your story without breaking the flow of storytelling. The secondary issue is deciding if it’s necessary at all.

Lots of newcomers like to throw their exposition in one giant heap, and then get to the story. That’s awful okay, but your reader is likely to lose interest fast. If you’re crafting a fantasy world, and you talk about its history before getting to the meat of your novel, not a lot of people are going to make it far. At all.

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It’s really about finding a happy medium. I like to start my stories with a hook that relates to the action, and then provide the background as necessary. This is a pretty acceptable format – you see it all the time in movies. Remember that Transformers movie where it took an hour for the Autobots to show up? Yeah, no thanks.

Here’s my opinion, and it’s obviously not going to satisfy every reader out there, but I feel as if character descriptions (or at least lengthy ones) can be tossed aside except when there is a romance element to your story, or appearance is in some way relevant. But even then, saying “Carl has red hair” … I mean, is that really necessary? Just have someone call him pumpkin head. Provide a detail that clues in the reader – ah, he’s got red hair. Actions and reactions should always be the primary source of information, not your exposition.

As far as romance goes, obviously saying “Helen is an attractive girl” is not going to cut it. If your protagonist has fallen for Helen, well, what’s so appealing about her? Super simple stuff.

Providing physical details at every turn can be distracting. It’s certainly not necessary to do so every time a character is introduced, that’d feel like an AA meeting. This is Jenni, Jenni has blonde hair, she’s 25, she has big bazongas…

Shit like that.

My method? I cut the detail unless it properly paints the scene. Even if a character is introduced and the author gives me some pretty meaty information on their appearance, I’m still going to imagine them the way I want to. It’s really all about placing the reader in the moment – they can fill in images of characters on their own.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

It’s easy to create a disconnect between the reader and the viewer, depending on the language you use. In my mind, I always maintain the same thought process: I’m telling a story. I need to relay to the reader how things are happening, and what effect it has on the characters.

Wrong. Well, okay, it’s not WRONG, but there’s room for improvement. I learned from a workshop recently about bringing a reader into the environment, instead of merely painting the picture for them.

How can you improve this? It’s simple. Super simple.

My boyfriend James was hunched over in his seat and leaning across the table, trying to irk a response out of me.

I thought this was a good sentence – or, at least, a well crafted one. My critic had some valuable insight, however.

I think you can remove “my boyfriend.” You could make it clear they are dating through the narrative events. If we’re inside her consciousness she’s not going to be explicitly cognizant of this fact, so it needs to come out indirectly. Furthermore, you can remove the last clause – we understand that sentiment from the dialog above.

Wow. Lots of thoughts for one sentence. But he’s completely correct. Literature in general might be more susceptible to intense nitpicking, but literature is also a delicate art, which calls for that. Poets are especially aware of this.

Furthermore, my critic tore into one of my paragraphs. It was awesome. Check it out:

Twisted imagery and malformed faces engulfed my mind. Vivid colors flashed and vanished just as quickly. Haunting screams and distorted speech emerged from every direction; the faint ringing in my ears grew louder. Louder. Louder.

Not a bad paragraph, but it gives me the feeling that I’m always in a hurry. I mean, think about it – this is a pretty pivotal experience for the narrator, and I’ve spent three sentences on it. Sometimes, I really suck at description, and it’s probably because I am in a hurry – to get the work done, anyway, and then I guess I never really flesh things out. Anyway. See what my critic had to say:

Here you have a great opportunity to color this piece in terms of tone and style. These dreams are happening intensely to Sarah, she’s going to be hyper-aware of the detail and should describe it accordingly. Just to illustrate, let’s see what that passage could look like if you fill in the blanks a bit:

“Images flashed in my mind like broken bits of celluloid tape. A burning Polaroid. Pin pricks of light exploding into malformed faces, melting like plastic, An emaciated girl, girl with her hands covering her breasts, her body wasted away to where you could see the outline of her hip bones. Mumbles and broken whispers crawled through my mind, and from some place deep within, growing like the piercing whistle of a train, a woman screamed. Louder. LOUDER. “

Another thing: word analysis tells me that one of my most used words is feel. This is a narrative filter, along with “seem” and “look” and shit like that. With this in mind, I’ve now got a lot to do: go back, and rephrase all of my feel, look, seem sentences in order to bring the reader into the action. Honestly? I blame my history as a creepypasta author for that. Good for micro-fiction to creep out people just looking for some scary shit, but not so good for an honest storytelling effort.

My critic did an overhaul on this paragraph:

I could feel a presence. I felt dead, glowing eyes surround me, piercing me. I felt the presence peer inside me, as if he had superpowers, and he could read my thoughts, feel my fear, my anger, my confusion, my sadness. He fed on it, my emotions made him whole, they drained me of my essence, and he loved it. I could feel him drawing nearer, as the incessant flashing lights and dreadful ringing pierced my mind. Then he was inside me – all of his awful, horrifying presence.

That’s my version. His version is a lot more engaging, and it also has no filters.

Among the sensory noise, a presence. Dead glowing eyes surround me, piercing me. The presence peers inside, fingering my thoughts like braille, my fear, my anger, my confusion, my sadness. He fed on it, my emotions made him whole, they drained me, and he loved it. He draws nearer as the incessant flashing lights and dreadful ringing pierce my mind. Then he was inside me, all of his awful, horrifying presence.”

Brilliant stuff. Really enlightening. Helped me a lot. The thing is, I don’t think I’m a bad writer, I just think I have a lot of room for improvement. It doesn’t happen overnight, but now is a better time to start than ever.

I have this issue, where I don’t personify my characters. I mean, I do – but it’s only for the sake of making them believable, and (hopefully) creating some kind of emotional attachment in the reader. I don’t do it in the interest of proper, interesting storytelling.

But Ben, you say, why do your intentions matter, if the end result is the same?

Well, my mindset is hindering me. My characters aren’t people, they’re vehicles for storytelling. I set out a beginning, middle, and end – and I think, “how do I work my characters into these situations?” instead of, “what would my characters do now?”

One of these paths leads to forced writing. The other, however roundabout, would definitely feel more believable.

Your characters aren’t puppets. The story you have in mind, is not simply a story. Your characters are people, and they have lives, goals, ambitions, lovers, a family, whatever. Flesh them out. What do they do for a living, what are some childhood memories, where are they from? Ask yourself these questions, and then write them down. A program I’ve stumbled upon, yWrite, comes with a built-in database that can be used for creating and fleshing out your characters.

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I feel a good first step to better storytelling is creating a story that relies on realistic reactions, and realistic characters. Meticulous? Yes. But I think it’s worth it. The story shouldn’t be the leading force driving your characters, it should be the characters themselves. The story is a result of that.

Every story has characters. Duh. But even if you’re just writing about a dense forest, or a sunrise – you’ve got characters, too. Every sentence has a subject, and in creative writing that subject is often your character. Treat ’em like a person. Detail their lives, but you don’t always have to do it in your story – a reader isn’t going to care that Iva has a pumpkin spice latte every day, unless that detail is relevant somehow, and is telling of her as a person. But, for you, the author, that detail might help you write a believable character.

I have no voice. When I write a story, it comes out as bland – uninteresting. There’s no fluff. I’m not a very engaging storyteller. So, it seems weird, that I would write about what I think makes a good storyteller. You’re right. I’m nineteen, and I dropped out of college this semester. I don’t know shit, and I’m lazy to boot. Anyway.

I find it helps to think of your narrator as a character – assuming, of course, we’re dealing with the third person here. First person narrators are a different, yet similar, beast. Something I do (and that means don’t do this) is think of my narrator as an all-powerful, objective God. That means, when telling a story, he abandons all the fluff and provides the details as-is.

The living room was caked in blood. The carpet had turned dark red; splotches of gore covered the furniture, drapes, and walls. From the ceiling fan hung a mass of meat, a wire wrapped around it. Melanie turned her eyes to the coffee table. Brown fur covered its surface, and blood dripping from the slab of meat tainted its color.

That’s not very engaging. It’s effective – meaning that it’s visual, and, as an English teacher of mine used to say, crunchy. But I don’t find it very interesting – it’s just a description of some blood. Woo.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I consider myself a pretty effective storyteller. There’s this one joke I passed around my high school called the “purple elephant”, and to my knowledge its legend lives on to this day. I crafted a very intricate joke, with many details and lovely little anecdotes, but with a catch: no punchline. This story changed pretty much every time I told it, in some way; but I always considered it effective storytelling on my behalf. Now, granted, regaling a story and telling one are two different things. But I’m trying to find the overlap. I know it exists.

Here’s the disconnect I’m suffering: the writer in me – the concise, punctual, tell-it-as-it-is kind of guy, he’s the voice that I’m carrying in my prose. The storyteller – the rambunctious, entertaining and lively fellow, he has no part of my writing. They don’t intertwine at all.

So here’s what I’m going to do to find my voice: picture myself telling the story. I imagine myself surrounded by some friends, telling the story in a (somewhat ridiculous) captivating way, doing my best to keep them engaged while still painting the scene effectively.

Doesn’t that sound like all the qualities of a good writer?

With this in mind, here’s my paragraph again, but from my storytelling side.

As Melanie stepped around the corner, a complete sense of horror washed over her. She took in the awful, disgusting sight that now covered her living room: her carpet was caked in blood, and gore was smeared on every visible surface. It was as if an angry painter had broken in, and blotted her house with red paint. A meat slab hung from the ceiling fan, suspended by a steel wire. Melanie felt her stomach churn over and over again, and she briefly worried that a dab of yellow would be added to her tainted red carpet. She turned her eyes to the centerpiece, her coffee table, which was now topped with a layer of brown bushy fur. The only sound heard was the dripping of blood from the meat-hunk, which steadily dribbled onto Melanie’s carpet.

I find this paragraph, a rough draft that I conjured up in about ten minutes, to be fantastically more engaging than its cut-and-dry counterpart.

The issue I’ve addressed definitely stems from a want of extreme conciseness. Cutting words is important, yes, but you should only cut the ones that don’t impact your sentence whatsoever. Filler words. Sometimes, you can cut some minor details, too – but this is something I’d do if the sentence was already chock full, and adding on more layers just muddies the thought.

My issue as a writer is just that, I’m trying to be a writer. I’m not trying to be a storyteller. I feel this realization, and this change, is a step in the right direction to writing more engaging and thoughtful prose. Maybe. I don’t know.