Moderate peeves

Suspense without adverbs is like biking without your using hands.

Something is happening. Hired killers barge into the room and ruin the moment. There is a leak in the spacecraft and there are only minutes left before suffocation. The hero is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit (or did… but he’s the hero, he had excuses). Something has to happen, on paper with ink on top. How the hell are we supposed to do that?

There have been a number of tentative answers to that question. All of a sudden, the door banged open. Suddenly, they heard a whistling sound in the command module. And then they run, panicked, frantically, heart pounding, out of breath, as quickly as they can. Then in all the commotion someone kicks your cardboard décor and everything is ruined in a big moment of embarrassment.

What I have trouble doing is building a décor that’s not made of cardboard. I wish I could find a safe way to suggest urgency, panic, all without having to put big papier-mache signs to tell the reader that something is happening. I suspect that the cardboard aspect may have to do with the adverbs, and the fact that I keep wanting to mention that everyone is suddenly out of breath. But then how can I use common words and make them scream and clash and rattle to scare the reader out of his wits, without using a single word that might indicate panic?

Words are written on paper. They won’t bite, whatever you do. To make them pretend they do is one of my big peeves as a writer. 

I suspect that successfully making the reader feel the urgency and suspense of a situation is like successfully drawing a portrait. You’re decent with light and shadows, you can draw a line or blur it when you have to, and you’re tolerably proficient at drawing things that can be recognised easily, like the Eiffel Tower, or don’t need to be recognised, like a tree. But when it comes to successfully rendering the uniqueness of a person’s features, there are less artists who consider themselves proficient, not counting the lot who do but really should not. Making hell break loose in the middle of a quiet scene without dropping any of those dreaded adverbs or commonplaces is one of the many things about the craft that drive me cazy.

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