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NO ADVERBS: The Reason Behind the Rule

If you’ve read any guide about improving your writing, you’ve heard the “No Adverbs” rule. Cross them out, delete them, take a tiny lighter and burn a hole through every –ly word that dares rear its ugly head until your manuscript looks like Swiss cheese, but don’t you ever, under any circumstances, ever use an adverb!

… Really?

Come on, folks. Adverbs are perfectly functional members of language society. It’s not their fault they’re so easily misused.

Adverbs are descriptors for verbs and adjectives, just like adjectives are descriptors for nouns. They tend to end in –ly, though there are adverbs that don’t (fast, regardless, seldom) and other non-adverb words that do (lovely, imply, gravelly).

(To quote a certain pirate movie: “Hang the code, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”)

The problem arises when you use an adverb to support a word that’s not pulling its weight. ‘Said’ is a grievous repeat offender.

  • “You’re making a scene,” she said quietly.
  • “I’ll call the cops,” said the man angrily.
  • “Can I have some candy?” the girl said pleadingly.

Vanilla Verbs (or Vanilla Vocabulary), as I like to call them, are so bland yet so familiar that writers will use them as the first word that comes to mind. Examples: say, eat, run, walk, move, etc.

They’re words that have entire lists of synonyms in the thesaurus because they cover whole ranges of action that they cannot accurately convey without help (such as adverbs).

To return to our examples:

  • Said quietly – whispered, murmured.
  • Said angrily – growled, shouted.
  • Said pleadingly – pleaded.
    (That’s it. Go home. You’re shoring up a weak verb with an adverb made from the gerund form of a strong verb – stop the madness!)

Let me break for a moment for a quick disclaimer: ‘said’ is a perfectly acceptable dialogue tag by itself. It’s also perfectly acceptable to leave the dialogue tag off completely if your readers can infer which character is speaking from the dialogue alone. I do not advise using specialized verbs to tag every single line of dialogue. That way lies madness and pissed-off readers. However, if you are using ‘said’ and you feel the need for more description, then yes, I would suggest looking for a stronger verb rather than using ‘said’ paired with an adverb.

With that out of the way, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

So yes, adverbs are abused in ways that are easy to correct through proper word choice or careful rephrasing. Does that mean that you never use them, never-ever, cross your heart and hope to die?

No.

Use adverbs when you cannot find a verb with the exact shade of meaning that you need. Use them to add description to verbs and adjectives that are already working to their full potential yet still need a little boost.

The train rattled along the track.

The train rattled briskly along the track.

Personification! The train has places to go and things to do. It’s moving quickly but not hastily, in a businesslike fashion.

The flower bloomed beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts.

The flower bloomed feebly beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts.

‘Bloom’ is a very specialized verb with few synonyms (blossom, burgeon, flower, unfold). So if you want to add more description to the action, you really do need some extra help. You can add another phrase – “The flower bloomed beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts, though the growth was feeble.” – but if word count is a factor, that one adverb can look pretty attractive beside that five word phrase.

Or you can use adverbs to flip a verb on its head with unexpected meaning.

The baby wailed despite his mother’s cajoling.

The baby wailed defiantly despite his mother’s cajoling.

Here’s a new shade of meaning with a hint of anger and rebellion. Usually to describe a ‘loud, angry, rebellious noise’ you would use a word like ‘roar’ or ‘bellow’, but those don’t quite fit a baby’s cry, do they? So it becomes a bit of a language equation.

Loud baby noise + angry, rebellious = wailed defiantly.

So yes, adverbs can be misused, and they often are. If you’re mindful, however, they are a valuable tool for any writer.

Can you think of verb/adverb or adjective/adverb pairs that work together in unexpected ways?

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Step Five: Acts and Tentpoles

In the last step, we talked about using the Hero’s Journey to structure your various plotlines. Today, we’ll learn about using Acts and Tentpoles to structure your story as a whole.

Now, what exactly do I mean by act or tentpole?

An act is a larger chunk of your story, and it can encompass multiple scenes in multiple places. A tentpole is more similar to the climax, where you can zoom in on a particular scene or even a particular second where something changes. When I outline, there are four acts and five tentpoles. Tentpoles (in bold text) divide the acts like so:

  1. Opening
  2. Act I
  3. 1st Doorway
  4. Act II
  5. Midpoint
  6. Act III
  7. 2nd Doorway
  8. Act IV
  9. Closing

Each of the four acts has a sort of theme to it. The Save the Cat! method for screenwriting designates them Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr.

  • Act I (Orphan) shows your main character in their ordinary world. They’re somehow alone or out of place.
  • Act II (Wanderer) shows your main character in the early stages of their adventure. They’re exploring, learning the ropes, but they’re still relatively passive, going where the plot pushes them.
  • Act III (Warrior) shows your character taking charge. They know what they’re up against, they understand the stakes, and they’re forging their own path.
  • Act IV (Martyr) shows your character in the final showdown. They will often sacrifice something important in order to achieve victory.

The tentpoles divide up your acts. The name comes from James Scot Bell’s book Super Structure (again, I recommend all of his books on writing). He says to picture the tentpoles like those of a circus tent, holding up the roof. His five tentpoles are Disturbance, the two Doorways, the Mirror Moment (aka Midpoint), and the Final Battle. I use:

  • Opening
  • 1st Doorway
  • Midpoint
  • 2nd Doorway
  • Closing

I put a lot of thought into the Opening scene, trying to choose the optimum place to start the story. It has to be early enough that you can introduce your reader to your world without just chucking them into the center of everything with no explanation whatsoever, yet late enough that they don’t have to slog through entire chapters before things get interesting. It’s not as much of a problem in stories set in modern day Earth, but easing your reader into a completely alien world a la sci-fi or fantasy can be tricky.

The 1st Doorway is when your character moves from Act I to Act II and they do so in such a way that there is no going back to the way things were before. That’s the key characteristic of the two doorways—no take-backs.

The Midpoint is a beat in the center of your story where your character flips from passive to active. Something happens that forces them to take charge—maybe they’ve hit their limit and refuse to be pushed around any more, or maybe they realize exactly how high the stakes are and start fighting in earnest. Maybe they learn something that flips their world on its head.

The 2nd Doorway is just like the 1st Doorway, except your character moves decisively toward the final conflict. You know in video games when your avatar crosses some imaginary threshold, and you’re suddenly locked in a battle with the Big Bad Boss with no way out? The 2nd Doorway is kind of like that.

For the Closing, look for some way you can relate it to your opening scene. I enjoy it when a book comes full circle—when something from the opening is echoed in the ending. It’s not necessary, but it’s a nice sort of crowning touch. A prime example comes from my favorite book, Watership Down by Richard Adams.

First line: “The primroses were over.”

Last line: “… and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.”

If you don’t want to go the full-circle route, think of what final image you want to leave your readers with as they finish your story. Leave them with something to savor.

Example

I considered using Avatar again as an example, but I’m seriously afraid you guys might hunt me down and pelt me with rotten fruit if I tried. So we’re going to mix it up. You like How to Train Your Dragon, right?


Opening: Hiccup tells us about living in Berk. “This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. […] The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have dragons.”

Act I: We see Hiccup’s life in the village—more importantly, we see how he doesn’t fit in. He uses one of his inventions to shoot a dragon out of the sky, but no one believes him. He goes out on his own to search for the dragon and finds it—tied up, helpless. Hiccup could kill the dragon and return to his village a hero, but…

1st Doorway: Hiccup sets the dragon free, and the dragon spares his life.

Act II: Hiccup’s father enrolls him in dragon-fighting training. They tell Hiccup, “a dragon will always go for the kill” but Hiccup knows differently now. Hiccup seeks out the dragon and learns about it, about its injury, names it Toothless.

Midpoint: Hiccup approaches Toothless, throws his weapon away, and reaches out. Toothless approaches and allows Hiccup to touch him.

Act III: Hiccup and Toothless play and learn about one another. Hiccup designs a tail fin to help Toothless fly. After some false starts, Hiccup and Toothless learn how to fly together. They are discovered by Astrid. Hiccup, desperate to keep Toothless safe, kidnaps Astrid (for a little while). Together they fly and see the dragons’ nest. They learn about the monstrous dragon that is keeping all the other dragons in thrall.

Back in the village, facing off with a dragon in the arena, Hiccup tries to prove to the vikings that they don’t have to kill dragons by showing them how he can tame the dragon, but it goes wrong and Toothless bursts in to save Hiccup. The vikings capture Toothless. Hiccup’s father Stoic learns that Toothless can lead him to the dragon nest. Stoic sets out with Toothless chained to his ship and leaves Hiccup behind in disgrace.

2nd Doorway: Hiccup shows the other young vikings how to ride dragons.

Act IV: Final showdown. The vikings face off against the giant monster-dragon. Hiccup and his friends arrive and save the day. Hiccup rescues Toothless and they defeat the monster-dragon, but Hiccup is nearly killed in the attempt. He wakes in the village later and discovers that he lost his foot in the battle. He and Toothless are now matched: Toothless’ tail-fin and Hiccup’s foot. The vikings live a new life alongside the dragons.

Closing: Again, Hiccup narrates. “This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots, we have… dragons.”


Assignment:

This week, look at your plotlines and think about how they might divide up into Acts and Tentpoles. Hint: use your Central Change to figure out your Acts and Tentpoles. After you have the basic structure worked out, you can add in all the extra plot points from your supporting changes to fill things out a bit.

But we’ll talk about that more next week, in Step Six: Outline. Until then!

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Step Four: The Hero’s Journey (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the archetypal Hero’s Journey and how it works as a basic story structure. Here’s a quick refresher:

  1. Ordinary World
    The hero’s everyday life—peaceful yet unfulfilling.
  2. Call to Adventure
    Something disturbs the peace and tells about the story’s central problem.
  3. Refusal of the Call
    The hero can’t or won’t set out to explore the problem.
  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The hero meets someone who tells him about the problem.
  5. Crossing the Threshold
    The hero sets out to explore the problem in such a way that he can’t go back.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
    The hero learns about the problem through firsthand experience.
    (Midpoint goes here!)
  7. Approach
    The hero is no longer passive—action, not reaction.
  8. Ordeal
    The hero faces a difficult situation that tests his resolve.
  9. Reward
    Overcoming the Ordeal grants the hero some form of reward.
  10. The Road Back
    The hero returns to face the problem.
  11. Resurrection Hero
    The hero overcomes the problem.
  12. Return with the Elixir
    The hero is changed by his journey.

(Disclaimer: Before we get any further, this is the part where I put on my really hokey pirate accent and say, ”But they’re more guidelines than actual rules.” I’ve played with this method of outlining so long that my definition of the steps may be a shade different than the original. It works for me, so I apologize for nothing!)

Now, you may look at this and say, “Okay, you’ve shown us this same list how many times now—doesn’t that mean it’s predictable?”

At first glance, twelve simple steps might seem like too little to build a story on, but that’s where your three changes—Public, Personal, Private—come in. Because the absolute brilliance of the Hero’s Journey isn’t that you can use it just as a simple outline—it’s the fact that the Hero’s Journey is the perfect pattern for how a character experiences change.

Interested? Let me rewrite the twelve steps again, with a twist.

  1. Ordinary World
    The character is unfulfilled with their everyday life.
  2. Call to Adventure
    The character becomes aware of some kind of challenge, but they cannot overcome it unless they change.
  3. Refusal of the Call
    The character can’t or won’t explore the change.
  4. Meeting the Mentor
    The character gains secondhand information about what the change entails.
  5. Crossing the Threshold
    The character steps (or is forced) to explore the change.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
    The character gains firsthand information about what the change entails.
  7. Approach
    The character begins to accept the change.
  8. Ordeal
    The character faces some challenge that cements the change.
  9. Reward
    Accepting the change grants the character some form of reward.
  10. The Road Back
    The character returns to face the original challenge.
  11. Resurrection Hero
    The character overcomes the challenge due to the change.
  12. Return with the Elixir
    The character experiences their ordinary world from a changed perspective.

I know you guys are sick to the back teeth of seeing Avatar as an example, but we’ve come this far, so I’m going to use it at least one more time.

Remember our three changes?

Public
 Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans
Personal:
 Jake: human → Na’vi
Private:
 Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na’vi

The cool part? Each one of these changes follows the twelve steps of change.

(Here’s where I whip out my handy-dandy Table O’ Plots for easier visualization.)

Table O’ Plots

 Pandora:
Colonized → Freed
Jake:
Human → Na’vi
 Jake:
Loyal to humans → Loyal to Na’vi
 Ordinary World Jake sees the human colony on Pandora, sees signs of conflict with Na’vi. Jake is a paraplegic human soldier. Jake is a loyal soldier.
 Call to Adventure Jake is lost in the forest, separated from humans.  Jake tries out his avatar body; joyous moment. Jake meets Neytiri (1st Na’vi encounter).
 Refusal of the Call Jake vs. Pandora (fighting/killing animals, trampling plants–violence, not harmony).  Quaritch tells Jake to spy in exchange for “getting his (human) legs back.” Neytiri almost kills Jake, wants nothing to do with him.
 Meeting the Mentor*
  • Quaritch
  • Grace
  • Neytiri
 Crossing the Threshold Jake agrees to learn the Na’vi way of life.  “
 Tests, Allies, Enemies Jake explores Na’vi life while spying for humans.  “
 Approach Jake/Neytiri romance. / Jake is loyal to the Na’vi.
 Ordeal  Hometree destroyed.  Jake outcast from the Na’vi. Jake’s initiation trial (riding a Banshee).
 Reward Jake becomes Toruk Makto to lead the Na’vi.  Jake gains Toruk.  Jake initiated into the tribe.
 The Road Back Na’vi prepare for war.  Jake returns to the Na’vi.  (N/A)
 Resurrection Hero Na’vi defeat humans. / Neytiri defeats Quaritch.  Jake leads the Na’vi to war.  Jake attacks a bulldozer to save a Na’vi sacred grove.
 Return with the Elixir  Pandora freed.  Jake is fully Na’vi.  Jake fully loyal to Na’vi.

(I know it’s a lot to look over. Take your time. There’s no quiz.)

There are several points where all three plotlines overlap. That’s okay! That just means that there are areas of the story pulling double- or triple- duty. It’s also a handy way to keep an eye out for key areas of your plot (more on that later).

Also, note that each plot point can either be a single scene or something demonstrated through multiple scenes. For example, Tests, Allies, Enemies has multiple scenes depicting Jake learning the Na’vi way of life (thought it’s mostly shown montage style).

The twelve step pattern holds true for your subplots as well! The Jake+Neytiri romance subplot hits most if not all of the steps (though I won’t subject you to another chart unless it’s something people want to see).

(Some lesser subplots may only have a few of the points. The Jake+Tsu’tey friendship plot doesn’t really fill all twelve steps, but it still has a definite beginning-middle-end.)

It’s really important at this juncture to choose your main subplots** and only your main subplots for this part of the process—you could do twelve steps for an infinite number of things and wind up with an outline longer than War and Peace. We’re looking for the high points here.

When you take all of these plot points and organize them along a timeline, you get a much more thorough (though not quite complete) outline. We’ll get into that later. For now:

Assignment

  1. Decide on your main three plots/changes as well as any subplots you want to work on.
  2. For each plot, create a twelve steps outline that shows how the plot changes from Beginning → End. You can do a chart like the one above, or you can do them as separate lists. Dealer’s choice!
    (Also, you’re allowed to be vague! No one has everything figured out in the outlining stage. You may get a clearer idea of what’s going on in your story when we get to Step Five: Tentpoles.)

I’ll see you guys this Friday for the Weekly Writing Wrap Up. See you then!


Footnotes

* “Meeting the Mentor” can encompass multiple characters at multiple points through the narrative. I call it a floating plot point since it can land just about anywhere. The key is that your character gains secondhand information from some kind of source. The mentor could even be a book!

**I typically have my three main changes (private, personal, public) and up to three subplots. The subplots are usually relationships—a developing friendship or romance, a friendship that decays into hatred, strangers into family (personal favorite). Getting into more plots than that means that you’re looking at a lot (A LOT) of plot points, and that can be overwhelming. For now, stick with the important ones!

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Step One: Plot

A quick note before we get to Step One.

The first three steps are like the holy trinity of plotting: Plot, Main Character(s), Climax. (Or to put it another way: Road, Traveler(s), Destination.)

I work on any of these three when I’m starting out, or even all three at once. I’m starting with Plot for this experiment because everything else ties into it, but if you would like to go ahead and brainstorm about your main character or the climax (aka the end of your story where cool stuff happens aka the Ultimate Final Showdown of Badassery™), you go right on and have fun playing in your new sandbox.

Now, onward!


For Step One, we’re going to be deciding the private, personal, and public changes that will form the core of your story; determining which of these is your central change; and looking for the supporting changes or subplots that flesh out your story.

In my post Plot = Change, I talked a bit about recognizing the central change of a story and how I diagram changes.

Examples:

Subject: Beginning → End
Lord of the Rings

One Ring: Discovered → Destroyed

Let’s look at the movie Avatar (the blue aliens one, not the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad airbender one).

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. You have been warned!

To recap, Avatar is a movie about a paraplegic soldier (Jake) who travels to an alien planet (Pandora) where he gets to mentally ride around in a hybrid human-alien avatar Because DNA That’s Why. He’s mentored by a scientist (Dr. Augustine) studying the local inhabitants (Na’vi). He eventually falls in love with a local (Neytiri) and leads the native inhabitants to rebel and kick the humans off their pretty, psychic planet.

So, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, what are the main things that change?

Pandora has been invaded and colonized by humans. → Pandora is freed from the humans.

Jake Sully is human, soldier, loyal, follower. → Jake Sully is Na’vi, Toruk Makto, rebel, leader.

Neytiri distrusts/hates Jake. → Neytiri trusts/loves Jake.

Dr. Augustine dislikes Jake. → Dr. Augustine is friends with Jake.

Tsu’tey dislikes Jake.→ Tstu’tey and Jake call one another “brother”.

There are others. These are just the first few that come to mind.

When I’m creating plots, I look for three changes to start with: private, personal, and public. (This comes from Plot & Structure  by James Scott Bell, who is pretty much the guru of storycraft. I highly recommend his books if you’re looking for more references on plotting.)

You know that saying “change starts within”? That’s what we’re going for here. The private change that occurs inside your main character enables the personal change that affects your main character’s personal life which leads to the public change that affects your character’s world.*

Let’s look at Avatar again. If you diagramed personal/public/private changes, you might wind up with something like this:

Public

Pandora: colonized by humans → freed from humans
Personal

Jake: human → Na'vi
Private

Jake: loyal to humans → loyal to Na'vi

This is a pretty simplistic summary. Plotting is definitely more art than science. There will always be multiple ways of looking at the same story, but you get the idea here.

Now, can you spot the central change? Remember that the central change is what kicks off the story and what closes the story (usually, but that’s a post for another day). Avatar has a pretty clear central change.

The movie begins with Jake leaving Earth, alone, after the death of his twin brother.

The movie ends the moment that Jake is permanently transferred into his avatar body, surrounded by the Na’vi and with Neytiri at his side.

Central Change

Jake: human → Navi

You could even diagram it as:

Jake: alone → family

Again, you may perceive the changes differently. That’s okay. When you analyze a completed work, there are so many different layers that work together that it’s hard to narrow a change down to a summary of just a few words. When you’re writing a story, however, coming up with ideas in this style gives you a jumping off point to build your own layers.

So this week for Step One, look for those three main changes in your story, public, personal, and private. One of those changes will be the central change.

(Hint: it’s usually the public change, but it could be the personal change, as you can see in Avatar. I won’t say it’s impossible for it to be the inner change, but it’s unlikely—the inner change is the catalyst that allows the personal and public changes to happen, and usually it’s complete before the story’s climax.)

Also look for supporting changes: characters who change their attitudes or beliefs, who become friends or enemies or lovers.

Assignment:

  1. Public, personal, and private changes
  2. Which is your central change? Think about how your story begins and ends.
  3. Subplots

I’ll see you on Friday for the WWM Weekly Wrap-Up! And maybe we’ll finally have a definitive answer from our concept poll. Until then!


Footnotes:

*This does not mean that the public change has to affect Life, The Universe, and Everything, to quote Douglas Adams. It just means that the public change has ramifications for people or places that the main character has no personal attachment to. In The Lion King, Simba’s reclamation of Pride Rock is a victory for him (private), for his pride (personal), and for all of the animals who were suffering because of Scar’s greed (public).