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Adjectives


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Initial post: Jun 11, 2012 7:36:33 AM PDT
Andie says:
Just wondering about everyone's thoughts on the use of adjectives in fiction. I'm reading a book now that isn't bad, but the use of adjectives to describe each and every noun is pretty distracting. I've never been distracted by adjectives before so I'm assuming that it's just noticeable here because the author uses them so frequently. Often in groups of 2. As in, "She opened the green, wooden door with her thin, white hand, and noticed a tall, bald man standing on her old, ratty doormat."

I know many of you are writers or are at least knowledgeable about writing, so I wonder...is there a "right" way to use adjectives? How many is too many?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 11, 2012 9:55:14 AM PDT
That book sounds like a high school writing assignment on using adjectives. I think it would be very distracting, also, because you'd just be waiting for the next adjectives instead of being immersed in the story.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 11, 2012 10:02:26 AM PDT
OldAmazonian says:
Abject artistic failure

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 11, 2012 10:18:38 AM PDT
Excellent witty observation!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 11, 2012 1:57:11 PM PDT
Andie says:
That's exactly why it is distracting! I find myself counting the adjectives in some passages.

Posted on Jun 12, 2012 7:37:27 AM PDT
Oldog_Oltrix says:
I've heard it is helpful to think of adjectives and adverbs as stage directions in a play. "Sarah looked at her smiling father." and "Sarah looked at her furious father, her eyes wet and wide." are two different stories, and "Sarah looked at her father." doesn't tell either of those stories. Obviously, if an adjective or adverb isn't essential to shaping a scenario or relating a tale, it shouldn't be there.

If Daniel Radcliffe could play the role of the man at the door, then there's no reason for "tall" or "bald".

I've also heard it is helpful to think of adjectives and adverbs as seasonings that add richness and character, while remembering that seasoning is a subtle art.
"She opened the door and studied the man outside."
"With her thin white hand, she opened the warped door slightly; and cautiously studied the man standing on her ratty doormat."
"She was frail, anxious, and lived in a crappy apartment. There was a knock at her door. A guy was standing there."

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2012 7:53:20 AM PDT
I vote that Oldog rewrite the distracting, adjective laden book!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2012 12:54:17 PM PDT
Andie says:
Hear, hear! Oldog, I second that! You seem to have a way with adjectives.

Posted on Jun 12, 2012 1:12:48 PM PDT
Personally I find myself only using adjectives when either:

a) the object/person is important, either then or later on
b) if it is required to set the tone

Otherwise, most objects in a story these days are known by the audience. The only other time to use an adjective on a normal object is if it has a distinguishing characteristic.

IMO, more authors need to realize that over description is bad, and that the audience is smarter than they give them credit for.

Posted on Jun 12, 2012 3:53:55 PM PDT
Frank Mundo says:
It's funny. I see what Oldog and Spider Mann are saying. But I never really think about -- or thought about -- whether I should use adjs or advbs while I'm writing. I just write what sounds right. In writing classes, of course, I was told adverbs should be avoided. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2012 7:12:59 PM PDT
Andie says:
Adverbs should be avoided? Why? (This makes me think of of Michael Symon, the Iron Chef, who always says things like "This is cooked perfect.") I always want to introduce him to adverbs!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2012 9:07:00 PM PDT
I wondered that, too. Personally, I actually love adverbs!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2012 10:16:59 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 12, 2012 10:17:11 PM PDT
Frank Mundo says:
I don't know. I think they equated adverbs with telling and not showing -- the other big rule.

Posted on Jun 12, 2012 10:47:07 PM PDT
Oldog_Oltrix says:
Adverb abuse was rampant in the early 20th century (Google 'Tom Swift' or 'Tom Swifties'), so a hammer-fisted rule was decreed. Hammer-fisted rules tend to hang around quite a while as they are handed down from generation to generation.

"Actually, the rule should also apply to adjectives and other modifiers; if you don't absolutely need them, avoid them."
"The rule should also apply to adjectives and other modifiers; if you don't need them, avoid them."

I deleted two adverbs from the first sentence. Is the second sentence any less informative or impactful than the first? It arguably has more impact because it's more concise. That's why a critical step in the editing process is hunting down and discarding unnecessary modifiers, especially adverbs and adjectives.

Of course there are adverbs that are important to the story, such as the woman who opened the door slightly and looked cautiously. As Steven King would say, "Don't tell me she's anxious; SHOW me she's anxious." Adverbs can be showy rather than telly.

Overuse of adverbs usually is awkward and even ludicrous, just like overuse of adjectives. "Briskly walking into the room, Trevayne was laughing uproariously at Maxwell's joke. He politely accepted a drink from the manservant and graciously handed it to Maxwell, then gratefully accepted his own drink from the manservant's tray. "Well," Trevayne said commandingly, "I humbly proprose a toast to The Princess." His toast was masterfully timed just seconds prior to the arrival of Her Highness, gliding lightly across the floor to stand at the side of comely young Lord Chadwicke." How many adverbs in that one paragraph? Most people answer "ten". There are only nine.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 13, 2012 12:11:38 AM PDT
>>As Steven King would say, "Don't tell me she's anxious; SHOW me she's anxious."<<

This is the best way I've seen this advice given. I tend to skim over long passages of telling and introspective thinking. A little of that goes a very long way, and more than a little keeps the story from advancing.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 13, 2012 6:15:44 AM PDT
Andie says:
That's so interesting. I've never given much thought to showing rather than telling. I guess that's part of the beauty of literature - you don't have to know how to write to enjoy and appreciate reading.

Of course, as a result of this thread, now I'm going to be paying more attention to modifiers of all sorts, and no doubt finding all kinds of new things to be annoyed about in fiction :).

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 13, 2012 7:16:01 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 13, 2012 7:44:56 AM PDT
Oldog_Oltrix says:
Anna, what are your thoughts on dialogue? Dialogue is very showy rather than telly if done right, but it almost always slows the pace.

"I'm a very anxious person," she said hesitantly. -- WTF? Duh! Telly dialogue! BBD :-(

"Oh God, someone's at the door!" she whispered to herself. "Perhaps if I'm quiet, they'll leave. Oh God, they knocked again, louder and longer! And again! They know I'm here; they must know! No, no, no, they're pounding! I can't listen to this; I can't stand this! I have to face them." Hesitantly, she reached for the lock. With her thin white hand, she opened the warped door slightly; and cautiously studied the man standing on her ratty doormat.

The previous paragraph should please Steve King; it has a lot of showy techniques. If by the end of this paragraph you do not know she is anxious, and that her anxiety is a crucial factor in the story, then you are truly comatose. Showy dialogue (Kaboom!), repetition for tension (Bang!), escalation (Kapow!), and concluding with 3 showy adverbs: pow, pow, pow! These are well-behaved adverbs, since they are modifiers carefully chosen as elements in an extended display of showiness.

PS - If I have done my job, most people who read this dialogue paragraph will want to know (if only subconsciously) what the next sentence reveals. Having showed you all this anxiety, I'm obligated to bring you down slowly. This might be a good place to ease off on the anxiety and introduce some mystery. So, fellow modifier geeks, what's the next sentence?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 13, 2012 6:31:07 PM PDT
I love dialogue. It's what connects the characters to each other.

However the example of internal dialogue you gave ~ No! There needs to be a certain amount of internal dialogue, but too much and I'm skimming.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 14, 2012 3:49:14 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 14, 2012 3:50:13 AM PDT
Oldog_Oltrix says:
Yes, the example I gave was actually monologue rather than dialogue, because I wanted to tie it in with the OP. And yes, one has to be careful with monologue as well as with dialogue. Monologue is the most personal of all writing, and can be stunning if done well.

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Interestingly, a lot (50% maybe?) of what readers think is dialogue is actually parallel monolgues. The characters aren't actually conversing so much as they are each in turn expressing what's on their mind, but not actually responsively. It's good writing because it's realistic; a lot of everyday conversation is parallel monologues. While Joe is speaking, Emily is half listening and half thinking about what she's going to say next.

Arguably the best chapter of 20th century literature is 6 pages of monologues and parallel monologues. Nell Harper Lee has Sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus Finch discussing the death of Bob Ewell who tried to murder Atticus's two children. Also present are Doctor Reynolds and Atticus's daughter Scout; and Arthur "Boo" Radley who doesn't speak in Chapter 30. About 75% of the Chapter is monologues, and everybody's on different wavelengths, and it is dazzling writing!!!

The highly-condensed version of the breathtaking final two pages: "Your boy never stabbed Bob Ewell ... didn't come near a mile of it and now you know it ... There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead ... To my way of thinkin', Mr. Finch, takin' the one man who's done you and this town a great service an' draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight -- to me, that's a sin ... I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I'm still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir." ... "Scout," [Atticus] said, "Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?" ... "Yes sir, I understand," I reassured him. "Mr. Tate was right." ... "What do you mean?" ... "Well, it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?" ... [Atticus] stopped in front of Boo Radley. "Thank you for my children, Arthur," he said.

A lot of dialogue tends to be utilitarian and pedestrian. It's hard to write captivating dialogue. If you check a few of your favorite reads, I think you'll be surprised at how much of what you thought was dialogue is really monologues linked with connectors like "What do you mean?" ... "I suppose we could do that." ... "Yes, but at what cost?"

Posted on Jun 19, 2012 7:08:30 AM PDT
On the adjective/adverb topic...I don't think it's the adjectives so much as the adverbs that display novice writing. You get an author like Cormac McCarthy who uses tons of adjectives, but they are all well chosen and well placed. I used to be plagued with adverbs. I didn't know any better until I went to college and learned a few things about writing...the hard way! I had some tough but very knowledgeable professors who were ruthless about us using crutches in our writing!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2012 3:14:21 PM PDT
What is it about adverbs that make them so terrible? Maybe you could give some examples, because I've heard this a lot before but don't really understand the reasoning.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2012 4:02:27 PM PDT
Oldog_Oltrix says:
I'll differ with you politely on this uncertain issue. There's no reason a novice writer is going to be able to manage the correct use of adjectives any better than adverbs. A modifier is a modifier. Every one has to be carefully chosen for a specific reason, and then correctly placed. The use of too many adjectives is going to look just as amateurish as too many adverbs. The failure to use a sufficiency of adjectives and adverbs is going to look amateurish, too.

Novice writing is a result of insufficient exposure and attention to good writing, lack of understanding of the structures of sentences and paragraphs, failure to master the rules of standard English, and inadequate vocabulary.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2012 4:07:36 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 19, 2012 4:11:29 PM PDT
nameinuse says:
That sounds bad. I've also read that authors who use too many adverbs have a really really really big problem with a really imprecise vocabulary.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2012 5:46:48 PM PDT
Do you really think so?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2012 6:17:32 PM PDT
Oldog_Oltrix says:
Hi Anna --

I believe that the hullaballoo over adverbs is overblown. I only see two problems.

First, many of them don't add anything to the meaning of the sentence; they're just padding and there's no reason for them to be there. Unless they are present in outrageous number, I don't see any reason to make a fuss about a few superfluous words except in situations (like a pitch or promo) where space is precious and your reader's attention span is short.

Second, if they are present in outrageous number, they become distracting and detracting.

In novels and short stories, I do not subscribe to the religion that declares every unnecessary word sinful. Rather than "avoid adverbs" or "avoid multiple adjectives", I believe the rule "Avoid Excess" is more helpful to me as a writer.
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Discussion in:  Fiction forum
Participants:  10
Total posts:  34
Initial post:  Jun 11, 2012
Latest post:  Jun 30, 2012

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