Describing manner

Let's return to familiar ground.

One way we can describe action is by describing in what way it happened. In what way was Roald Dahl's mother handling the tiller of their boat?

We would cling to the sides of our funny little white motor-boat, driving through mountainous white-capped waves and getting drenched to the skin, while my mother calmly handled the tiller.


His mother was handling it calmly.

'Calmly' is what we call an adverb of manner—it describes the manner in which an action happened.

Roald Dahl uses it here to set up a contrast—he describes a wild scene, followed by a simple description of his mother's behaviour.

One thing to notice is that adverbial descriptions are quite compressed. Dahl says his mother 'calmly handled the tiller'—he leaves you to imagine what that actually looked like.

Try to picture it for yourself. What does calmly handling the tiller look like to you? You might imagine his mother sitting up straight, but relaxed, looking across the water at their destination, not looking around at other waves, one hand draped on the tiller, making only the slightest adjustments as they drive across the water.

Why doesn't Roald Dahl describe his mother in more detail like this? He wrote more detail about the boat and the waves and getting drenched. Why compress his mother's action into a single adverb?

The answer might be to enhance the contrast between the wild scene and his mother's calm behaviour.

He spends a lot of time setting up the sense of wildness—the little boat, the mountainous waves, and drenched children—and then he hits us with a contrast: his mother calmly handling the tiller. That compressed description is part of the effect—it helps us feel her calm during an otherwise wild scene.

Let's write a variation using the idea of contrast.

In this exercise, we're going to keep the adverb 'calmly' and change everything else. Describe a scene that is the opposite of calm, and then have one character doing something calmly in the middle of it.

Here's an example.

We clung to the sides of the basket as our hot air balloon scraped across the side of the cliff, knocking snow and bits of rock down onto our heads, while Edgar Fortescue calmly adjusted the burner.

The workshop erupted into chaos as the elves began to brawl with one another, with punches thrown, faces smashed, elbows into eye sockets, hats in the air, toys knocked down and teeth knocked out. Meanwhile, Santa calmly lit his pipe and puffed.

Write your own wild scene in which one person is calmly doing something. You can use the inspiration image provided for ideas if you would like.