Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Let's Talk About Adjectives

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Got a great question last week...
I do wonder about adjectives. I generally try to avoid more than one per paragraph or thought, but is it okay to use more or should I work on cutting them out completely? 
Adjectives are those colorful words that are used to describe other not-so-colorful words. Green tree. Ugly baby. Soft, fluffy, white clouds. There are many great adjectives out there, and a whole lot of fantastic opportunities to use them. They usually add depth to otherwise boring sentences.

See what I did there? I loaded that paragraph with adjectives, and it reads clunky, doesn't it? Let's take a closer look:
Adjectives are those colorful words that are used to describe other not-so-colorful words. Green tree. Ugly baby. Soft, fluffy, white clouds. There are many great adjectives out there, and a whole lot of fantastic opportunities to use them. They usually add flair to otherwise dull sentences and bring them to life.
 That's a lot of adjectives. So let's get rid of them.
Adjectives are words that are used to describe words. Tree. Baby. Clouds. There are adjectives out there, and a lot of opportunities to use them. They usually add flair to sentences and bring them to life.
Um...yeah, that's not going to work. Without some of those words, this paragraph makes no sense. We'd better add a few back in.
Adjectives are words that are used to describe other words. Green tree. Ugly baby. Soft, fluffy, white clouds. There are many adjectives out there, and a lot of opportunities to use them. They usually add flair to dull sentences and bring them to life.
Much better.

By now, you probably see a little goes a long way when it comes to adjectives. They're an important part of writing and shouldn't be cut out entirely, but it's easy to over-describe a word same as you can over-describe a scene. Put in too many and they affect the flow of the text. Too few, and it's hard to understand what you mean.

Just like adverbs, there is no "use X many per X paragraphs" rule to go by here. But there are some things to think about how and where you use them.

1.  Does the adjective tell the reader anything they didn't already know about the word?

Soft, fluffy, and white are all things every person asked would use to describe a cloud. That's like saying, "He dived into the wet water." If the adjective doesn't provide additional information than what the word itself conveys, you can probably cut it.

2. Does it provide judgment on the POV character's part?

This is a good trick to see if you're the one telling the reader what something looks like or the POV describing it in their own words. How often do you walk outside and think, "Gee, look at those soft, fluffy, white clouds drifting gently across the sky." You more likely think, "pretty day" or something that fits your personality and the situation. My husband laughed at me this past week because I said the clouds looked like a fault line. Odd way to describe the sky, but the clouds did look just like a fault line. He's described them before as looking like a bad Photoshop cloning job. Can you tell I'm a writer and he's a photography buff?

3. Is there a reason to go into more detail?

Just describing something wastes opportunities. Adjectives can be used to set a mood, or evoke an emotion. If your protag just broke up with her boyfriend and is in a really foul mood, she might describe the sky as "stupid fluffy, white clouds all soft and cottony." The tone comes across completely different because of her mood. Or you might want to contrast something for dramatic effect, like seeing a bright pink hearse at a funeral. 

4. Can you better show it through action?

Since adjectives describe other words, a precise noun or verb might work better. "A hard rain fell" could turn into "Rain pounded the windows." It's one aspect of show don't tell, really. Anything you're using to describe something else is by its nature telling. While that's not always a bad thing, it is one area you can check on if you're getting "it feels told" feedback.

5. How does it affect the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph?

Lots of adjectives in a row can start to feel list-like. "She was a tall, thin woman with flowing, curly blond hair and wide-set ice-blue eyes. Her dress swirled around her, dark royal blue, with small, round gold buttons along a narrow waistline." But an adjective in the right spot can add that extra beat that makes a line sing. "He was tall and dark, with eyes of sin and moonlight." You need the double beats at the end to balance the beginning. It wouldn't sound the same like: "He was tall, with eyes of sin and moonlight." All the music is gone.

Adjectives can be used in any number of ways, and using them depends a lot on your writing goal. If the only reason is to show what something looks like, it's probably a bad reason and the adjective doesn't need to be there. But if it adds tone or mood, helps the rhythm of the text, characterizes, shows judgment, provides and interesting contrast, etc. then it's probably the right word in the right place.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This was fantastic. Thanks so much. Puts everything in such perspective.

  2. Another great post! Thank you.

  3. Excellent post! Adjectives are key to balancing flowery language and pace. After all, when you are going on a date, who needs the flowers if you're going nowhere? :)

  4. I like your set of "rules" for when to use adjectives. They carry a heavy burden, not just to describe their particular words but also a great deal around them.

  5. Thanks for writing this great post, Janice! Adjectives don't often get the attention they deserve.

  6. I really have nothing new to add except, um, this man who is tall and dark, with eyes of sin and moonlight-- will we be hearing more of him? Enquiring minds want to know about this mysterious and clearly hunky man.
    - Sophia.

  7. Sometimes I think wow, this sentence sounds so cool, I'm going to keep it in. But now a days I'm starting to question them. I hear writers saying don't use a flowery sentence if it doesnt' serve the story, or if its not part of the POV. Yet, when as a reader, I read a sentence full of vivid adjectives, I think its cool and it adds to my experience. I guess it depends on the context of the work as a whole.

  8. Love that line about the tall, dark man with "eyes of sin and moonlight." Very exciting to think of the role adjectives play in sentence rhythm, too! I tend to adjective-ize a little too much, but I let myself write them in the rough draft, and slash the extraneous ones later (so I can pick and choose the best ones).

  9. As a pilot, I never use the words soft or fluffy to describe clouds. Lumpy, maybe, but never fluffy. :)

  10. Nicely put.

    The adjectives in a character's vocab can say a lot about who that person is.

    That's probably the first thing I consider when describing something.

    The second thing I consider is what I want to bring attention to about the thing.

    The rest I leave up to the imagination.


  11. Ann: Thanks, glad it helped.

    Mac: Thanks!

    Suzie: Most welcome

    Lee: LOL great analogy.

    Jaleh: I think they're words that everyone uses instinctively, but they can do a lot to help or hurt a passage.

    Juliette: No they don't. Poor little adjectives.

    Sophia: LOL I might just have to use that in my next WIP!

    Lydia: Thanks!

    Greg: Context is everything. I've written great lines that just don't fit the scene or character. I usually save those in another file for later use.

    Carol: Good plan. Anything goes in a first draft.

    Eric: Hehe, you have a unique perspective :) I wouldn't have thought of them as lumpy. But if I ever write a pilot looking at clouds I'll have to remember that.

    Misha: Good tips. They're kinda like vague threats -- what we come up with to fill in the gaps is so much more interesting.

  12. I don't have anything to say. Everyone else said it better! Once again I'm getting hit with the notion of rhythm. It's important, but it's also my weak point.

  13. Great post. You always nail what to think about for every subject you blog on. Thanks.

  14. Another great post! Thanks Janice.

  15. Great post. Sometimes we need to be reminded what's the basic function of each part of speech. I particularly liked the paragraph on how adjectives can affect the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph. I'd love an entire post on that - on how to achieve a good, flowing rhythm.

  16. Chicory: Rhythm can make all the difference in how interesting a sentence is. More on that on Thursday's post. :) And Monday's as I continue with rhythm in dialog.

    Natalie: Thanks! It's the thinking about what we do that helps us get it. At least that's how it was with me. Being told what to do never sunk in for me as well.

    JTWebster: Most welcome

    Brigita: You got it! Thursday's topic is rhythm. I enjoyed looking at adjectives. I'd never done a post on them before. I'm going to have to look to see what other "forgotten" areas I can cover like this.

  17. Wow. Makes so much sense. And ditto to Brigita's comment - would really enjoy an entire post on rhythm!

  18. It's all about moderation, eh?

    As always, I LOVE your posts--SO informitive and EASY to understand!!!

    Thank you!

  19. Great questions to ask - thanks for the help!

  20. Roberta: How about two?

    LBDiamond: SO much of writing is. That's why the "rules" aren't black and white. And thanks!

    Alyssa: Anytime :)

  21. Thank you so much for mentioning the rhythm of the sentence! My critique group tends to try and cut adjectives on principle, and some people think it's odd when I fight for some of them because of the "Beat" of the sentence. I am so happy that someone else thinks in those terms.

  22. Kathie: Most welcome! Rhythm is so important. Writing isn't just putting words on paper it's creating word music. You need that variety or it'll all sound the same.

  23. Excellent post! I have a hard time finding the right balance sometimes.

  24. Thanks Margit! It can be a challenge. When I find myself using a lot of adjectives, that's often a red flag that I could be describing it in a better way. Maybe finding a stronger noun, or using a simile or other image.