You don’t hear that phrase every day, do you? Adverbs are some of the words most-hated by the writing community, and rightfully so, with blasphemous creatures like approximately and suddenly running rampant through our proverbial streets. But at the same time, some adverbs are glorious. I’m going to see if I can parse out what a good adverb can bring to the table using a few quotes from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
Examples of Awesome Adverbs
It would be difficult to imagine a more miserable and visibly hungover group of graduating seniors.
At first glance, it doesn’t look like we need this word, when in fact it improves the image vastly. To say the group was simply hungover would present them more as slouching and tired, but to be visibly hungover, they become slumped, staggering, bloodshot, early-morning zombies… all with the use of only one word.
He was exquisitely conscious of his mother and father sitting a dozen rows behind him.
This adverb is great because it is so precise. Rather than saying “very” or even “keenly,” Grossman adds a more refined nuance to the feeling. A keen awareness would be run-of-the-mill sense of presence, while an exquisite awareness becomes both painful and a little tasteful, due to that word’s association with both pain and high class.
…where they stood around a dazzlingly blue swimming pool sipping gin and tonics at a conclave of Filipino shamans.
This word seems like a mouthful, but it is used to heighten the aura of the locale. Grossman wanted this place to feel lofty and luxurious, and when you pair words like dazzling with gin and tonics and conclave, you get an exclusive, wealthy, almost Gatsby feel. Just plain “blue” would not have done that.
He felt so heavy that he could break through the brittle pavement any second, and plunge down into the sewers, unless he placed his feet gently and precisely in the center of each sidewalk square in turn.
This gives us a very good idea of his drunken state. We drinkers have all been there: those times when it takes all your focus to do the simplest tasks, and in your foggy brain you insist they must be done a certain way. Grossman uses these easily-accessible words to help us relate to a specific and universal feeling.
Quentin supposed her unfussy diligence reminded him unpleasantly of the future he was ignoring.
If we lose this word, this sentence would still lean toward a similar meaning – but with the word, we lose all sense of ambiguity. We know for certain that Quentin associates the woman with his own failures, and loosely lays blame on her, which sets us up more powerfully for their falling-out.
…he had always been supremely aloof and self-sufficient.
Again, what is lost when we take out this adverb? The sense that this character thinks he stands above others, that he is better than everyone else. Someone who is simply “aloof” could be a social outcast, a math nerd, a hot girl…. But to use “supremely aloof,” we imagine an asshole instead.
…Josh, who had spent the past week researching recipes that included violently disparate ingredients…
And these sort of adverbs are my favorites. This word is at odds with the things it is describing. Ingredients and recipes associated with violence? Awesome. While “disparate ingredients” might make us think of carrots and chocolate, “violently disparate ingredients” screams matcha and sushi. Add to this everything this line says about Josh, and you have yourself a hell of an adverb.
The Adverb Ultimatum
Adverbs are not the enemies we make them out to be. They can be used to intensify a scene, help us more clearly picture or relate to something, clarify character down to a pinpoint, and connect ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have clear ties to each other. The trick is to make your adverbs do work. If your sentence is basically the same without one, then why bother clogging your prose with it?
By the way, seriously… The Magicians is amazing. Grossman’s descriptions are mind-blowing, and I’d recommend it for the learning potential alone, although the story is incredible too.
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