Monday, January 13, 2014

We Need to Talk About Your Adjectives

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.

Nouns matter.

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 aids
readers 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. 


sherry caroll said...

Oh dear. Went into my memoir after reading this and started highlighting them. And since i'm changing( or rather adding) publishers this week maybe some editing is in order. I've learned a lot since march 2013. This might be a much bigger job than I thought. I'm not sure if I am cleaning up or destroying my voice. One of my first reviews said " The beauty of the book was the joy and exuberance of the narrator." It stuck in my head, so I've been hesitant to monkey with that. Maybe i need to tidy up and have someone else tell me after reading both if I have made it worse or better. Any volunteers? Looks like its going to be a very long night! LOL

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thank you for this, Bonnie. I checked my novel in progress. On the first page, I had one adjective and it was "scuffed up". I like that one.

I wonder, though, if the adjective issues is more of a genre thing. For instance, the more romance-leaning novels I've read are laden with adjectives. Am I completely off base? They just tend to describe the characters to minute detail.

Bonnie Grove said...

Sherry: In the end, only you decide what stays and what goes in your work. Joy and exuberance. I would hesitate to fuss with that also. It's your work and only you decide what stays and what goes. I'm glad to get you looking and thinking about this, though. There is always room for every writer to improve. Always. Good luck!

Susie: I don't read romance novels, but I can't see how too many adjectives would help. I'm thinking those who read/write in that genre would know best.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Enjoyed this post and REALLY enjoyed the snippet of your WIP (love the title, BTW). Yes, sometimes there's a time and place for adjectives AND those poor, dejected adverbs. I'm often blown away by how much writing has changed in this past century. Those long classic paragraphs with nothing but description just don't fly now.

Bonnie Grove said...

The modern reader doesn't require those long descriptives (most of the time. there are exceptions, especially in sic-fi and, often, fantasy. Historical can be the exception as well, but that is a different kind of descriptive). We've been there, done that, understand. Modern readers do, however, love the un-obvious descriptions. The hidden details that add both to the story and to their understanding of whatever is going on. They will be happy with a sketch of a setting, but will love quirky, off-set details that add to the voice, plot, and characterization of the story. Adventurous use of adjectives is the way of today's reader.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Not to be querulous, but I really want to know; cannot bowline stand alone as a noun? And then, a reader will complain that she had to go look it up to find out what in the world it was; therefore, why didn't the writer use the noun and the specific adjective together?

Cherry Odelberg said...

Yes, Susie, I agree; use of adjectives is genre specific. More in romances and sparse in scifi or more masculine novels.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: The phrase I used was "bowline knot" to be clear. In certain cases, you could allow bowline to stand alone as a noun, but since I'm writing a novel and not, for example, a boy scout manual, or a chapter in a book on knots, it was necessary to use the noun "knot" for clarity. The protagonist is attempting lift something very heavy, and it's interesting that she knows her knots. ;)

Bonnie Grove said...

re: comment above: of course I meant sci-fi, not sic-fi. *rolls eyes at herself*

Anonymous said...

It does take extra work to find the exact right nouns and verbs rather than rely on adjectives and adverbs. Digging deeper for precise words can only make your work better.

Heather, my theory is that without the internet and TV and modern travel, "older" writers had to describe things in detail in order to bring the picture alive in the reader's mind. But, their action scenes were generally full of precise words. It's my theory, and I'm sticking to it! :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Vonilda: That extra time is often what gets us as writers. We feel the pressure to hurry up and write, hurry and finish, hurry to press. It's the worst thing about self-publishing--jumping before the parachute is firmly attached--and traditional publishing both.

I struggle with it all the time.