Friday, March 18, 2016

Don't Make Your Reader Suffer in Adverb Hell

I was immediately caught by the opening to E.B. Vandiver's story "Forcing Bowl" in an old edition of the Kenyon Review. The short sentences, mysterious at first, suddenly giving way into realization that what was being described is a very common experience.

But that already had me hooked. Seeing the familiar in what was first unfamiliar. What an opening. Yet, the writing style quickly wears thin, irritates me, and I begin mentally scratching out adverbs. I didn't even read the rest of the story. I'd seen the markings of a story I should avoid.

Time is precious after all. And I mention this not to tear down Vandiver, but to first of all remind myself, and then you, that the reader doesn't need every moment handed to her, every sense qualified, because that dissipates the same pleasure I had just begun to enjoy at the beginning of the story -- the piecing together and sensing of the scene lightning quick.
They bring him home and stare. Their quiet house. Though he says nothing, hardly cries, they are deafened. When he nurses, he twists his head wildly, latches on off-center. He stares vacantly at the pushed-up flap of Elizabeth’s bra, slowly curling and uncurling his fingers, making mewing sounds. Elizabeth can see the corner of his jaw pumping methodically as he gulps audibly, clacking his tongue. In three minutes he will fall asleep, mouth going slack, colostrum dripping from the corner, soaking Elizabeth’s gown. There are deep red marks around the nipple, bruises where his mouth has been (Summer 2011).
You wouldn't think it would be so cumbersome, but it is. Leave out "methodically" and leave out "audibly". I want to hear it, see it, imagine it without the baggage. On the upside, the endings of the two words do go well together.

Just imagine what the rest of the story might be like. Save the adverbs for the moments that absolutely need to be handed over to the reader.  

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