Adverbs. We’ve made a big deal about them in recent years. Readers, it has been declared, hate them (fine, though I strongly suspect most don’t care that much if they enjoy the story), They weaken prose, so off with their heads.
I could argue that well-chosen adverbs make for punchy prose packed with panache (just ask Arthur Plotnik), but the general point is well made. Killing off the “ly” words does tidy up the place. And writers have complied. We’ve had our ah-ha moments and killed off swaths of “ly” words.
Before we take too deep a bow for our writerly stroke of genius, I draw your attention to the forgotten noun. Or, more accurately, the flabby adjective your nouns are resting on like sleeping old men atop waterbeds.
Last week Latyane pointed us to some neuroscience experiments that have recorded physical effects on the brain from reading fiction. This makes sense because most complex tasks inflict physical changes in the brain and reading fiction—words that are complex symbols that represent symbols of real things—is nothing if not complex.
I’ve pounded the noun drum before and I’m tattooing again in the context of thelingering shadows in a reader’s brain. When we read, we accomplish an astonishing array of tasks all without moving a muscle. Our brain scans words on a page, interprets the symbols correctly, and builds a complex system that, if it were extracted from a reader’s brain, would resemble a close proximity to real life with all its subtlety, brutality, and interact relationships. Reading is an act of stunning creativity. And what aidsreaders in their creative act is nouns they can build on.
Recently I read a new writer’s attempt to create a scene. There were the usual newbie mistakes, including a floating POV, overly descriptive prose, and telling rather than showing. Still, it was the writer’s use of adjectives that stood out to me. In two sentences the writer used nine adjectives.
I panicked a little. Went to my work-in-progress and scanned the manuscript looking for adjectives. I found a sample roughly the same length as the one with all the adjectives. Because I suspected I was a more experienced writer, I decided to count the adjectives in four sentences, rather than two.
The adjective? Bowline.
Maybe I was just lucky. I chose another passage, another four sentences.
Then I hunted up some favorite novels, the kinds that have stayed with me and played out in my memory for years.
I’m certain you can guess the outcome.
Nouns are the objects in which our brains build the worlds suggested to us in novels. Shadow-makers. The stronger the noun, the more certain the building blocks.
Adjectives are helpful when clarity is needed.
“His left arm.”
“She rolled into a protective ball.”
Precision is the goal for all writing—better to use a precise noun than to try to prop it up with an adjective.
So, where is the fun in adjectives? Modern writing is full of them (thank heavens!), and it’s important that we don’t leave this article thinking the point is to kill all the adjectives and leave it at that.
Kill the flabby ones and replace the noun it was propping up. Then, have some fun with adjectives, using them freely and creatively in ways that help readers build worlds in their imaginations.
Here is an example from my current work-in-progress, Trillium, with the adjectives highlighted:
I was drowning. Being eaten alive by a shallow creek. Dying beside a cow, of all things. No one believes they would die beside a cow. Every breath found only liquid. I thrashed, kicking my legs while trying to free my right arm from the elbow-deep mud, which meant pushing down with my left arm, sinking it deeper into the muck.
There was a splash. Loud. Nearby. Not made by me. I was kicking in mud, and this was the sound of water. My name. Drawn out like a yodel, Fiiiioooooooooooona. Splash. Twice more. My yodel name, then splash. “Grab the rope!”
Rope. Cory. Help.
Hit your manuscripts and go adjective hunting. If you want, come back and tell us how it went. How many frivolous ones did you kill? What about the creative uses? Can you think of a novel you read that dragged you down in adjectives? Share your thoughts, examples, grousings, and chocolate cookies in the comment section.