Category Archives: Description

How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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Filed under Description, Research, Revision

The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

Adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, utilized effective prose, including this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

– – – – –

This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Word Discrimination, Part 2” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in May 2011.

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Filed under Description, Word Use

Putting The Good In Good Description

newspaper-490932-mOnce upon a time, description read much like a classified ad, with all the significant attributes of whatever object the author chose to highlight, listed out one after the other. More recently, this kind of static description has given way to description through action.

While this method may be the best way for writers to create graphic scenes and vivid characters, it is not the only app on the screen. Let’s look at three other devices that contribute to good description.

First, good description utilizes a variety of senses. Rather than limiting depiction of characters or setting to visual aspects, a writer can include sound, touch, taste, or smells to give life to the story. This idea is not new and may seem simplistic.

However, the saying “too much of a good thing” can apply to description, too. I’ve critiqued, judged, or edited work before that seemed bent on providing a five-senses descriptive experience, regardless of whether or not the sounds or smells, tastes or textures mattered to the story. Rather than enhancing the scene, these unnecessary additions bloat the action, slowing the pace.

Picking the right sensory details, then, is the second way writers can build scenes that come alive. The clue is to pick those sensory details that matter to the character at that time, in that place. From Description by Monica Wood:

Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the “telling” details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. …

This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape (pp. 6-7).

A third device at the writer’s disposal when creating powerful imagery is two-pronged: on one hand the writer may employ similes and on the other, metaphors.

A simile is a figurative statement comparing two usually unrelated things or people to one another by using “like” or “as.” The sentence My brother is as tall as my father does not create a simile because the comparison is between two people. However, My brother is as tall as a giraffe does produce a simile.

The metaphor is another figure of speech, more understated and more revealing, according to Ms. Woods.

With a simile, the comparison stops at the end of the sentence; with a metaphor, the reader’s imagination goes on to include all the images and associations that the metaphor implies (Description, p. 14).

Metaphors, like similes, can be created using nouns and adjectives. Example: The boss was coming, our supervisor warned us. And still I wasn’t prepared for the peacock that strutted into the conference room.

Another effective way to create metaphors is to utilize verbs, which some writers already do naturally. Characters burrow under the covers, for example, or fly across the room. These established uses of verbs in a non-literal sense add color to our writing. Creating new and unusual metaphors make our words memorable.

Just For Fun.

I used two metaphors earlier in this post (not as part of an example). Just for fun, see if you can spot them, then write your own or identify the well-known (and oft used) comparison that served as the model for the one I created. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments if you’d like.

Next, look at your work in progress and find places you can deepen your description by creating a simile or metaphor. Enjoy! 😀

– – – – –

This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Good Description” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in June 2011.

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Filed under Description

Show, Don’t Tell: Beyond The Cliché

pulls_weedsMost writers have heard the adage to show rather than tell when writing fiction. When I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, I even taught the principle. And yet, one of the first things a writing professional who critiqued my work uncovered, was problems with showing.

There are actually several ways that “show, don’t tell” can go wrong. First, not everything a character does can or should be shown. Should readers be subject to long scenes of a character brushing his teeth? toweling off after a shower? weeding the garden? It’s possible in some story that these activities do carry some significance and should be fleshed out in a scene, but the chances are, for most novels these are incidentals that ought not receive equal weight with such things as a character leaving her husband or being fired from his job or meeting her birth mother for the first time. So the first rule of thumb should be, show what’s important.

_CrutchesEven showing the important is a bit of a balancing act. Some writers take the idea of showing too far and create what I refer to as “stage direction.”

    Joe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then stood, his left hand resting on the back of the chair. He reached his right hand toward the crutch propped against the wall. Snugging it under his right arm, he inched his left leg forward, then transferred weight to the crutch and swung his injured right leg ahead.

Again, there may be some story that needs these details, but most don’t. Writers should trust their readers to fill in the specifics when they aren’t essential to the story. The above can be improved by eliminating the stage directions:

    Joe grabbed his crutch and limped toward the door.

Besides knowing what not to show, a writer also needs to know what she ought to show. There are four areas which may appear in a scene that require showing: action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue.

First and foremost a writer needs to show the important action, not after the fact as if it happened off stage and someone is recounting the events. Rather, it should take place in front of the reader, either in story time or as a scene in a flash back.

cigarette_smokeIn conjunction with the action, a writer can show the scene. In so doing, he does not stop the story to set the stage, but rather inserts descriptive detail into the story, along with the action. Notice how Mark Bertrand did this in his novel Nothing To Hide, Book 3 in the Roland March Mystery series.

    He stares at me through a cloud of smoke, pleased with this pronouncement.

    We stand around for a bit, soaking up the UV rays and the secondhand carcinogens; then I thank Bridger for the help and get going.

Bertrand could just as easily have stopped the action and inserted a line of description.

    The air is thick with smoke, so thick the sun’s rays could hardly penetrate it.

If he had wanted to call particular attention to the smoke and the sun, that would have been the way to go. But if they are incidental, they can be included along with the action and they add richness to the setting without slowing the story needlessly.

Third, dialogue shows. Rather than summarizing an interchange between two or more people, the writer gives the exact words. However, in the same way that showing can devolve into stage direction, dialogue that’s trying too hard to be realistic, can devolve into the trivial. In the exchange below, I’ve omitted tags and action to show how the words themselves need to go somewhere rather than simply filling space.

“Hi.”

“Hi back. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just hanging out.”

“I see that.”

“So have a seat.”

“Thanks.”

“You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

“What’s the or something?”

This exchange may be realistic, but in most instances there’s not enough relevance to the story for this entire dialogue to be included. The writer would be well served to move past the non-essentials to show the parts of the conversation that move the story forward.

The final area is internal monologue–what a character is thinking. Too many of us writers, when we’re starting out, tell the character’s emotion rather than showing it.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Hunted, Book 1 in The Lore of Efrathah, with the “telling” lines in boldface type:

    Jim glanced to his left and saw, to his surprise, that the shelf upon which he sat extended on in that direction. He hadn’t been aware before that it was more than a slight accidental overhang. He couldn’t see what became of “his ledge,” as he began to think of it, because it disappeared around an outcrop of rock that jutted from the cliff. But his decision was made.

Compare that to this segment from a later draft (and different scene) which doesn’t tell he’s exasperated or uncertain about what to do, but shows it with action and thought:

    Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn’t in his pocket. Of course! He’d lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time, considering all his cuts and bruises and whatever he’d done to his ankle.

One caution about showing internal monologue. It’s tempting to front load backstory by having a character remember past events. By using such a device, the writer might feel as if he is showing the character’s thoughts. In fact, he’s giving a clump of backstory. To be effective, internal monologue needs to be delivered in the character’s voice as a natural part of whatever is happening to him. It should never be included because the author wants to tell the reader something so decides to put it into the character’s thoughts.

I hope that difference is clear because it’s pivotal. In one instance the writer is showing the character’s thoughts and in the other he’s dictating to the reader what he wants her to know. Of course, the thoughts that the writer shows the reader should be the important ones which move the story forward. Not every trivial thought a character has is worth showing.

The key to the “show, don’t tell” guideline, then, is balance. A writer needs to show action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue–but not all of any of those.

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Filed under Action, Description, Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Rules

Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 2

In Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1 we looked at the elements that a scene must have–goal, conflict, and a resulting intensified problem.

Not only do scenes have these specific components, they show the story, verbally unfolding it before readers so that they visualize what’s taking place, as if on the stage of their minds.

How does a writer achieve this level of showing?

As in plays, novels or short stories should paint the scene and highlight the characters, but if that’s all we see on stage, there is no story, only models and artistic backdrops. The key to a good scene, then, is the action of the characters governed by their attempts to achieve their scene goal.

Writers must not neglect the staging, however. Readers need to be able to imagine the scene, and this requires a certain amount of detail. The descriptive elements, when appropriate, should involve all five senses.

Writers should not force sounds or scents into a scene, however. I’ve seen this from time to time in contest entries I’ve judged. For no particular reason other than the writer knows someone is judging to see if description involves all five senses, the sound of someone’s shoes on the floor makes an appearance. Or the smell of the garbage in the bin outside or the taste of the salt on her lips. These details may contribute to the story, but if they don’t they need to be cut.

A scene should feel full and real, but it should not be stuffed with window dressing. The scenery specifics, and the character descriptions, must enhance the action, not overpower it.

Here’s a scene from one of my own contest entries several years ago. Tell me what you think. Is there a character goal? Conflict? Heightened problem? Is the scene painted using the five senses? What would make it better?

The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”

Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”

The gaunt matron scowled. “You’d bring death on me and my family, would you?”

“No one need know I’m working for you. I can come at night—sweep out the common room and the kitchen, wash up your crockery, whatever you have need of.”

Mistress Trent seized her broom and flicked the coarse bristles toward Abi. “I need you to leave my property.”

Abi stepped nearer the door. Cold air seeped from underneath and crawled up her bare legs. She reached for the latch but stopped. Was she really wrong about Mistress Trent? She’d sneaked to the back entrance of The Pilgrims’ Lodge with such high hopes. Something about this tough-acting matron belied her imposing demeanor, but right now she showed no sign of softening.

How could Abi leave empty handed? How could she listen to Bijamin’s whimpering one more night? Her young brother was brave and rarely complained—a credit to all the dissenters—which fueled her determination to complete her task, both parts of it.

“Mistress, I know stitching, of all kinds. I can make you a shawl … or a dress. Whatever you want. No one would even see me.”

The innkeeper shook her head, swatted the air with her broom, and yelled. “Git!”

“Please, Mistress. I can’t let my brother starve.”

The care-worn woman shifted her gaze to the sideboard. “You heard me. Get off my property!” She reached for a pinkish-yellow pomegranate in the fruit bowl and hurled it at Abi.

Abi caught the hard-shelled fruit in one hand. Was this an attack … or a gift? She cocked her head, questioning.

“I don’t want you comin’ back here, is that clear?” Mistress Trent flung another piece of fruit to her.

Abi caught that one as well and tucked both in the pouch at the front of her tunic. “Yes, Mistress.”

“If I so much as see your shadow on the threshold, I’ll send for the constable.”

Abi mouthed a thank you.

Mistress Trent stepped toward her and swung the broom. “Out, or I’ll put you out! Leave my kitchen now!”

With a grin, Abi held up a hand. “I’m going, I’m going.”

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Filed under Description, Setting or Story World, Structure

Good Description

Once upon a time, description read much like a classified ad, with all the significant attributes of the object in question listed out one after the other. As noted in the previous post, “The Power Of Prose – More About Description,” this kind of static description has given way to description through action.

While this method may be the best way for writers to create graphic scenes and vivid characters, it is not the only app on the screen. Let’s look at three other devices that contribute to good description.

First, good description utilizes a variety of senses. Rather than limiting depiction of characters or setting to visual aspects, a writer can include sound, touch, taste, or smells to give life to the story. This idea is not new and may seem simplistic. However, I’ve critiqued, judged, or edited work before that seemed bent on providing a five-senses descriptive experience, regardless of whether or not the sounds or smells, tastes or textures mattered to the story. Rather than enhancing the scene, these unnecessary additions bloat the action, slowing the pace.

Picking the right sensory details, then, is the second way writers can build scenes that come alive. The clue is to pick those sensory details that matter to the character at that time, in that place. From Description by Monica Wood:

Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the “telling” details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. …

This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape (pp. 6-7).

A third device at the writer’s disposal when creating powerful imagery is two-pronged. On one hand the writer may employ similes and on the other, metaphors.

A simile is a figurative statement comparing two usually unrelated things or people to one another by using “like” or “as.” The sentence My brother is as tall as my father does not create a simile because the comparison is between two people. However, My brother is as tall as a giraffe does produce a simile.

The metaphor is another figure of speech, more understated and more revealing, according to Ms. Woods.

With a simile, the comparison stops at the end of the sentence; with a metaphor, the reader’s imagination goes on to include all the images and associations that the metaphor implies (Description, p. 14).

Metaphors, like similes, can be created using nouns and adjectives. Example: The boss is coming, our supervisor warned us. And still I wasn’t prepared for the peacock that strutted into the conference room.

Another effective approach is to utilize verbs, which some writers may do naturally. Characters burrow under the covers, for example, or fly across the room. These established uses of verbs in a non-literal sense add color to our writing. Creating new and unusual metaphors make our words memorable.

Just For Fun.
I used two metaphors earlier in this post (not as part of an example). As homework, see if you can spot them, then write your own or identify the well-known (and oft used) comparison that served as the model for one I created. Next, look at your work in progress and find places you can deepen your description by creating a simile or metaphor. Have fun! 😀

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Filed under Description

The Power Of Prose – More About Description

According to writing instructor Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, editors report that they principally reject manuscripts because there is too much static description or too much told action. In conjunction with my recent posts about adverbs and adjectives, I want to consider description today.

If a work of fiction has what I’ll call “traffic cop” description — that is, the author brings the action to a screeching halt to deliver details about characters or setting — then, if Stein is right, it is doomed for the auto-reject pile.

In this day, as novels compete with visual media, the pace in which stories are delivered has increased. No longer can a work of fiction leisurely sketch one character after another or recount the details of each location. Instead, the better writers know how to make their prose do double or triple duty.

One of the first jobs of description, beyond giving sensory data, is to characterize. Even this function is two pronged. Description may characterize the subject at the same time that it characterizes the point of view character making the particularized observation.

Take, for example, this excerpt from The Mayan Apocalypse by Mark Hiccock and Alton Gansky:

Candy Welch was tall and curvaceous with raven hair and permanently puckered lips boasting a red lipstick the color of a stop sign. She slipped into the back of the limo like she had practiced it a hundred times. Perhaps she had.

Morgan smiled, complimented her on her little black dress, and held out his hand. She brushed it away, leaned close, and kissed him on the cheek. Fire rose in his face.

“Oh, look, I left a lip print on you. Let me get that.” She removed a white, initialed hanky from the Gucci clutch she held, licked it, and began to rub his skin.

“No, please, let me. I can get it.” He pulled away.

Not only does the reader learn about Candy’s appearance, but he learns about her personality. She is forward, flaunts her sensuality, and prefers high class baubles and boyfriends. In addition, the reader also learns about the point of view character, Morgan, in part because of his reaction to her but also because of the list of details he observed.

This excerpt highlights a second important function of description — it moves the story forward. While there is an initial introduction to the character in the first sentence, the rest of the passage conveys what she is wearing, carrying, and purposing through action or dialogue.

From Stein On Writing:

We individualize by seeing characters doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them. Don’t ever stop your story to characterize. Avoid telling the reader what your character is like. Let the reader see your characters talking and doing things (p. 51).

Is your character short? Show her standing on tiptoes and stretching to grab something a person of average height can reach with ease.

Is your character bald? Show him donning hats before he goes outside or wiping off sweat with a handkerchief.

Better yet, find unique actions, not standard, been-there-seen-that fare. Then your triple-powered prose will take your readers along at a fast clip with lots to fill their imagination.

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Filed under Characters, Description

Word Discrimination, Part 2

Like adverbs, adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. To illustrate beautiful prose in Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, I quoted a passage in my recent review that included this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

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Filed under Description, Word Use

Word Discrimination, Part 1

Are some words better than others? Are certain parts of speech to be shelved, or even banned from our writing? You’d think so based on some of the most highly recommended writing instruction books available.

Not too long ago, an editor at a writers’ conference referred to one such book as his writing bible. The book in question? Self-editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This slender volume does, in fact, point to one particular group of words and advises against its use. Mostly.

I’m referring to adverbs, especially those that end in –ly. Here is the pertinent instruction:

Be on the lookout for –ly adverbs, for the sake of sophistication …

When you self-edit, you can root out these verb/adverb combinations like the weeds they are. The weak verbs that come to mind so readily can then be jettisoned in favor of stronger, more specific verbs — verbs that can say exactly what you want to say without help.

There are exceptions, of course … but even where the adverbs aren’t the product of lazy writing, they can still look like lazy writing, just because –ly adverbs have been used so often by so many hacks in the past (pp. 159-160).

Clearly, this piece of writing advice has merit. Verbs and nouns (subjects, in particular) are the centerpieces of every sentence and should be as strong as possible — that is, they should be as specific as possible so that they evoke a particular image.

For example, notice how the image changes for each of the following sentences:

    (1) The reporter sauntered into the office.
    (2) The reporter dashed into the office.
    (3) The reporter crept into the office.

Three different images, but the only word that’s different is the verb.

Would walked lazily, walked quickly, walked slowly have the same power to transform the sentence? Not at all. The right verb is infinitely more powerful than a “catch all” verb combined with a describer.

That being said, I think it’s important to mention two things here. First, Browne and King themselves said there are exceptions. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule that must be obeyed (for more information on this topic see “Are Rules Really Rules?”).

Secondly, there is subjectivity involved. One person may think the use of an –ly adverb has the appearance of lazy writing, is unsophisticated, or is a weed that needs to be uprooted, and another reader may think that construction is clear and precise.

My recommendation is two-fold. For beginning writers, after you have finished the rough draft of your story, search out –ly adverbs and eliminate them by utilizing stronger, more specific verbs. Without exception. Resistance to this step can lead a writer astray. It is too easy for us to rationalize, convincing ourselves that our adverbs are the ones that add clarity and precision. Digging out better verbs can be hard, time-consuming work, but better verbs equal better writing.

For more advanced writers, use –ly adverbs with intentionality. They might be necessary for clarity, but also for sentence rhythm or for conveying a character’s unique voice. The rule of thumb should be that adverbs you keep must add value to your work.

A final word. When critiquing someone else’s work, writers shouldn’t be too quick to apply a “writing rule.” As always, the overriding guide should be whether or not the piece (sentence, paragraph, chapter, or story) works. If an author paints a vivid scene incorporating an –ly adverb, it is not “wrong.” There are, in fact, no banned parts of speech. Adverbs, like other words, can work for the fiction writer, but first we must demonstrate mastery over strong verbs before we go about describing them.

Next time, adjectives.

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