There are lots of things authors should not do when writing, like indiscriminate shifting point of view between characters, churn out your novel without a detailed outline, frequent usage of the same word, overusing slang…there are others. What I want to touch on here is the usage of adjectives.
We all like to sprinkle noun modifiers, that’s what an adjective is, into our writing, believing that flowery language will enrich that piece of prose, making it vibrant and alive. They can do that, but more often than not, they can also cause a reader to yawn and shut that book. As with all things – moderation. Sometimes a scene requires an adjective here and there, at other times they can impede the flow of the narrative; like hitting a speed bump on the road.
I always loved my essay writing assignments, even though many of my classmates found it an agonizing chore. I could never figure out what was the big deal. My specialty was using elaborate flowery language. I loved adjectives; the more the better. The one thing my writing lacked was people. It took me a while to make the connection. Prose was good, but great writing has to involve people, drama, conflict, emotion and everyday life. When I learned to write dialogue, everything clicked, or so I thought. How I labored to learn what good dialogue was all about! You can have brilliant narrative, but crummy dialogue will sink you. Anyway, that’s another story. We are talking about adjectives here.
A small example to gnaw on:
Sitting on a gently sloping beach, the golden sands still warm from the day’s sapping heat, I gazed hungrily at the mercury waters fading into a star-studded horizon. Small waves, ripples in time, broke gently, sliding with a hiss toward my feet, leaving creamy foam in their wake as the sea dragged back the black water, glistening in silver moonlight…
I think you get the idea. So, what’s wrong with that scene? Perhaps nothing. Then again, it could be that speed bump. It has to fit the context of the story! In a romantic piece, you could get away with something like that because it adds depth, but if I am taking a momentary breather because some bad guys are after me, that writing doesn’t fit. What would?
Sitting on the sloping beach, the sand still warm from the day’s heat, I gazed at the horizon. Small waves broke at my feet as I looked at the full moon…
Both narratives portray the same scene, even though they are completely different in structure. Even in a romantic piece, if the author takes several paragraphs to describe a background setting, he runs the risk of boring the reader. Like caster sugar; a little is nice. Use lots of verbs instead! Adjectives are frail things. It is far better to use nouns and verbs to do your descriptions. Remember, show, don’t tell! A correct noun will remove the need for a modifier.
So, what to do? Write your manuscript, then when you are editing, look hard at your adjectives. Delete or replace them with a strong noun. If you must have an adjective, leave the ones that are absolutely essential. This process can often be more painful than chopping off an arm, but readers want to read the story, not be hypnotized by flowery language that doesn’t say anything.
Another thing. Don’t overuse adverbs!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist.
What do you think of Stefan’s points about the use of adjectives? Do you have anything to add? Feedback is always appreciated.