Have you ever played Tom Swiftie? I’m referring to the word game many of us learned as children where you make a sentence in the format: (Statement) + Tom said + (punny adverb). Here are a few of my favorites.
“This lemonade needs more sugar,” Tom said sourly.
“I’m not good at darts,” Tom said aimlessly.
“I only have diamonds, clubs, and spades,” Tom said heartlessly.
“I dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said crestfallenly.
If you have fun with this, keep it out of your writing. The adverbs in these sentences, while good for making puns, can suck the life out of fiction. Steven King perhaps popularized this notion more than any other fiction writer. The Dorrance Publishing website has a page with 20 of Steven King’s top rules for writing. Numbers 3 and 4 concern (not using) adverbs.
3. Avoid adverbs. You need to do the work prior to using an adverb so that it isn’t necessary as a descriptor. If your characters are in a heated argument, you need to create the drama leading up to an exit so that you don’t need to say that the character slammed the door, forcefully. Forcefully should be redundant.
4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” (Sorry, Tom S.) According to King, “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” You don’t need to add an adverb after “he said” or “she said.” Just keep it simple.
“Authors’ Rules for Writing: Stephen King
In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he gets even more critical. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
Whether you are a fan of King or not, I believe the greatest reason for his success is his ability to paint vivid scenes and characters in the reader’s imagination. So we would do well to heed his advice. Why is he so down on adverbs? Let’s explore that for a few minutes.
#3 Avoid Adverbs
So what’s wrong with adverbs? As a kid who grew up on Schoolhouse Rock, I can still sing the chorus and most verses of “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” Now, as a writer, the experts tell me I should let Lolly keep their adverbs. As with most writing rules, when I first learned this, my first instinct was to rebel. What did I spend those Saturday mornings watching cartoons for if it’s to forget the grammar I learned?
But as with most writing rules, as I sit with it, it makes sense. In the last post, I talked about the importance of using strong verbs instead of weak verbs. This rule is a corollary of that. As King indicated in Rule #3, strong verbs make adverbs unnecessary and redundant. If Tom slammed the door, there’s no need to add “forcefully.”
Think of this sentence. She walked slowly. The adverb here props up the weak verb walked. How could we say that without the adverb?
She crept.She tiptoed.She shuffled.
Do you see how using a strong verb makes any adverb unnecessary or even redundant? Not only that, the strong verb paints a more vivid picture than the verb/adverb combination we used originally.
So the lesson here is watch out for verb/adverb combinations. When you see one, try to find a stronger verb.
#4 “He/She said,” No Adverb
Now we go after Tom Swiftie. King’s 4th Rule refers specifically to using an adverb with “he said” or “she said.” Again, if you do the other parts of your writing well, you shouldn’t need an adverb in that case. The action and dialog should make the emotion behind it clear without any adverbs. One of Elmore Leonard’s cardinal rules was you should never need any dialog tag other than said. I think it’s safe to say he would agree with King on this.
Consider this example. “That’s not funny,” he said angrily.
The dialog here does not clearly communicate anger, so the writer used the adverb, angrily. But as an article on Autocrit said, “An adverb in a dialogue tag means you probably have to rewrite the dialogue itself.” How could we change this dialog?
“That’s not funny, you disgusting pig,” he said. Now there’s no need for an adverb.
You can also use action if you prefer. He grabbed the joker by the throat. “That’s not funny,” he said. Or something simpler. “That’s not funny,” he said through clenched teeth.
Those are just some examples, hopefully enough to demonstrate that “said” with an adverb is not the most powerful way to convey emotion. And this is really part of the “Show don’t tell” rule. Instead of telling the reader what the character is feeling—angry, frustrated, happy, sad, etc.—show the emotion through action and dialog.
“To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
Did you notice he used adverbs? Totally, completely, profligately. Yes they are adverbs, but they do not break the rules. You want to avoid verb/adverb combinations, and you want to avoid adverbs with dialog tags. His adverbs do not describe a verb but an adjective (“covered”). If you think covered is a verb, it can be. But in this sentence, it’s a past participle, which can be used as an adjective.
Bottom line, the goal is not to eliminate all adverbs. The goal is to make your writing vivid and compelling to the reader. And these two rules will help you do that.
On your work-in-progress, pull up the search function (Find in MS Word). Search for ly. This will be at the end of almost all offending adverbs. If your adverb is paired with a verb, replace it with a strong verb that makes the adverb unnecessary.
If it is a Tom Swiftie (“he said adverb”, “she said adverb”) you can try two things.
Remove the adverb. Is the meaning still clear? Congratulations. You wrote it well but just didn’t know it.
If the meaning is not clear, add some action or make the dialog sharper until the adverb is unnecessary.
In the series of character studies on Abraham, I’ve been
taking my cues so far from Hebrews Chapter 11 and the stories that it relates about
Abraham as an example of great faith. We’ve learned a lot about him and there are
still more stories to go. So I want to go back now to the beginning and see how
this story developed.
In some ways, Abraham represents a transition from really
ancient times, when in the Bible you regularly see people living lifespans of
hundreds of years, to getting closer to lifespans we are accustomed to.
If you go back to the first man, Adam, we have this.
When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.
(Gen 5:3-5 NRS)
Before this, Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, and Cain
ended up murdering his brother, Abel. So now they have another son when Adam is
one hundred thirty years old.
Don’t roll your eyes at me
Now if you’re rolling your eyes at me and saying, “Come on. We
all know this is a fairy tale. It never really happened,” stop! It doesn’t
matter whether it “really happened” for what I’m doing. I’m not looking at history.
I’m looking at this story. So even if you don’t believe it really
happened (and I will admit I have serious doubts myself) that doesn’t change
the story. I’m looking to see what it would have meant to the people for
whom it was originally written. Every nation in ancient times has some kind
of origin story, and most of them we agree didn’t really happen. But we still
study them to learn something about the people. What does this tell us about
the people and how they saw themselves?
So even if you don’t believe this is real history there are
still plenty of reasons to study it. In this case, I’m looking ahead to the
story of Abraham and Sarah. There’s a pattern developing, and it’s going to be
important when we get to Abraham and Sarah.
So when Adam is one hundred thirty years old, he has a son
named Seth. Today, we couldn’t even imagine most of us living to one hundred
thirty years old, much less, if we make it, then having a son. It would have
been the same for the original audience of this document. It goes on to say,
The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.
(Gen 5:4-5 NRS)
So Adam, the first man in this saga, lived nine hundred
thirty years. Here’s some interesting trivia. Who was the oldest person in the
When Methuselah had lived one hundred eighty-seven years, he became the father of Lamech. Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech seven hundred eighty-two years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died.
(Gen 5:25-27 NRS)
So the answer to that question, it was Methuselah. He lived nine
hundred sixty-nine years and had his first son at one hundred eighty-seven.
By the time we get to Noah and the flood, he was six hundred
years old when the flood happened. He lived a little bit longer after the flood,
so he was somewhere in his six hundreds when he died. We’ve gone from 900-something
to 600-something. And then we get to the descendants of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
Abraham’s Story Begins
The stories of Abraham are bookended by genealogical
frameworks. So the genealogy of Shem is officially the beginning of Abraham’s
When Shem was one hundred years old, he became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.
(Gen 11:10-11 NRS)
So his total lifespan is six hundred years. His father lives
into his 600’s, so this is still in the same ballpark. He has a son named
Arpachshad when he is one hundred. Remember, Abraham was a hundred when he had
When Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; and Arpachshad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred three years, and had other sons and daughters.
(Gen 11:12-13 NRS)
Okay, Arpachshad is thirty-five years old when he has his
first son. This is much closer to our normal, and importantly, closer to the
normal of the first audience of the book of Genesis. There’s also a dramatic
shift in lifespan. We’ve gone from his father living six hundred years to four
hundred three years for Arpachshad. He was the father of Shelah.
When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber;
(Gen 11:14 NRS)
Shelah is thirty when he has his first son. Again we’re in territory
that’s closer to the experience of the original audience. I’m going to skip
ahead to verses 20-21.
When Reu had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; and Reu lived after the birth of Serug two hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters.
(Gen 11:20-21 NRS)
Again, we’re still in this normal range of having the first son somewhere around thirty years old. The lifespan, though, is going down. Shelah in verse 15 lived four hundred three years. Now Serug lived two hundred thirty-nine years. This is a few generations later, and you see there is a definite downward trend in terms of average lifespan. I’m going to skip ahead to Nahor.
Nahor Became the Father of Terah
When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah one hundred nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters.
(Gen 11:24-25 NRS)
We’re getting close to the birth of Abraham, and there is a
significant drop off from over two hundred years. Nahor had his first son at twenty-nine,
but lived after that one hundred nineteen years. So he lived to be one hundred
forty-eight. That’s still a long time by our standards, but it is a far cry
from the nine hundred sixty-nine years of Methuselah, and the six hundred years
of Noah and Shem. When we get to Arpachshad, it’s four hundred some years, on
down to Reu, who lives two hundred some years. And now Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather,
is down to one hundred forty-eight years. Next is Terah, who was Abram’s father.
When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
(Gen 11:26 NRS)
Does that mean they were triplets? Maybe. Maybe it just means that by the time he was seventy, he had three sons named Abram, Nahor and Haran. So when Terah was seventy, Abram had been born. They’re still living pretty long lifespans, into their hundreds, but again you see the downward trend.
Abram and Sarai
When we get into the story of Abram and Sarai (later renamed
Abraham and Sarah), he was eighty-six when he had his first son, Ishmael. But
his wife, Sarai, still had not had a son. She was ninety-one when she had her
first son, Isaac, and Abraham was one hundred. On average, men are having their
first son around thirty years old. The author is showing that this is late for Abram
and Sarai to be having children.
Since Eve, the author did not talk about the mothers in detail until now. This was a patriarchal society. The lineages were traced through the father. But it was important in this story that Abraham and Sarah have a son. It was so important that even when Abraham was one hundred, God came in and said, “It’s not too late.”
He went on to live to one hundred seventy-five. Sarah was one
hundred twenty-seven years old when she died. When you first hear that, you
might think that it was not impossible at that point, since people were
living well into their hundreds on average. They were still in middle-age. The
man still might be able to rise to the occasion. The woman still might be of
fertile, childbearing age for that time. That would not have been normal, but maybe
it would have been possible.
For writers: Know your audience’s expectations
The original audience probably would have wondered the same
thing. The author wants to establish that Abraham and Sarah were both “too old”
to procreate when Isaac was born. The author will make that clear at the right
time. But at first, he wants to keep that question open.
Aswriters, we can learn something from this. The
author knows his audience’s expectations. They have heard stories of people in
ancient times living for hundreds of years. Before we even meet Abram and
Sarai, the author is hinting at the answer, but not giving it away. He has
established the average lifespan and average age when the first child is born
has been going down steadily from Adam to Abraham.
When the moment of truth comes in the story, the author says
when Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, it was impossible not only
for her but for Abraham. They had stopped having sex some years earlier. That
part of their marriage life was a thing of the past. She had passed menopause, and
Abraham was no longer able to rise to the occasion. To an audience that has
heard of ancient lifespans being a few hundred years, he has hinted just enough
in the genealogy to prepare them for this. She was ninety, he was ninety-nine,
and even with the average lifespan back then, they were too old.
Also for writers: Foreshadowing
The first eleven chapters of Genesis answers questions about
the origins of the world, people, and nations. The author, however, draws the
added benefit of foreshadowing from the genealogies. When God promises a
son to Abraham and Sarah, it is a crucial moment in their story. Abraham is
ninety-nine, and Sarah is ninety. If you compare them with Methuselah, you might
think they were just teenagers. They have plenty of time to have a son.
But the genealogy showed how, over time, the average age for
childbirth and lifespan went down steadily. By the time you get to Nahor,
Abraham’s grandfather, people are having their first child around thirty on
average. Is it too late for Abraham and Sarah?
The author doesn’t necessarily need the foreshadowing. He states
clearly that Sarah had passed menopause, and they were no longer having sex, so
yes, it’s too late. But the foreshadowing hinted just enough to raise the
question for a second and create a little more tension, before dropping the
anvil on their hopes.
Foreshadowing is a good technique, but you have to know
how to use it. If it’s too heavy-handed, it usually backfires. The reader
sees it coming, so it lessens the impact. The author of Abraham’s story in Geneses
used it subtly, and it added another layer of tension.
If you want to learn more about using foreshadowing effectively, this is a good example to study.
Skim chapters 5 through 11 of Genesis. You don’t have to memorize everyone’s names and ages. Just notice how the numbers go down.
Then read chapter 18. Start with verses 1-10 and pause. The angel of the LORD has just made the promise. You know Abraham and Sarah’s ages as compared with the last four generations or so. How does it feel? Do you wonder if it is still possible for them?
Then read Sarah’s reaction in verses 11-12. That’s your answer. Sarah (and we must assume Abraham also) believes that ship has sailed.
Not that it’s a surprise, but did that moment of uncertainty make the impact of her hopelessness stronger for you? It did for me. So there’s an example of an effective use of foreshadowing.
Do you think you could use it in your story? How could you
use subtle foreshadowing to heighten the tension at your story’s crucial
What do you mean “too old”?
Then the angel of the LORD steps in one day, visits them in
their tent, and says, “By this time next year Sarah will have a son.”
She laughed, and the angel is like, “Why did you laugh?”
She said, “I didn’t laugh.”
“Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Great use of dialog, by the way. You feel her nervousness
when she says, “I didn’t laugh.” And then her embarrassment when the angel
says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
But the angel said something to her that turned things around. Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?
They had heard promises like this before. God had promised
Abraham a son of “his own issue,” but God did not say when and did not promise
it would be with Sarah. So he ended up sleeping with Hagar, because Sarah said,
“I can’t give you a son. Go in to my handmaid. You need to have a son, because
God commanded it.”
He did, and he had a son. God promised to bless Ishmael. But this time God promised specifically, not just Abraham’s issue, but you, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. I know it looks impossible, but is anything too wonderful for the LORD?
They counted God faithful
The angel of the LORD said in effect, “God made a promise. Do
you believe it?”
They did, even though it was “impossible,” and even though anyone
would probably wonder why God waited until now to fulfill that promise. Of
course, it wouldn’t have mattered whether they believed or not if Abraham
couldn’t get it up. God must have given him some heavenly Viagra. (Hey, the
Bible talks about this frankly, so why can’t I?)
Shortly after that encounter with the angel, Sarah started menstruating
again. This was their chance. If Abraham was able. Around the same time,
Abraham’s dead flesh came back to life. Guess what, Sarah? For the first
time in several years, they came together again as husband and wife.
God told them they would have a son together “at the appointed time,” which was within one year. They named him Isaac, which means “he laughs,” because they had both laughed when God first said it to them.
They did not believe instantly. They did not believe constantly throughout their lives. They went through periods of doubt, probably wondering if Abraham was insane. But this time the angel promised, they both heard it, and they knew God was serious. They counted him faithful who had promised, and that’s why they are in the “faith Hall of Fame” of Hebrews Chapter 11.