Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Break the Writing Rules, Part Four: Adjectives

(Note: this post was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but I postponed this essay until Friday to avoid double-posting over the IWM issue announcement. Apologies to anyone who was inconvenienced by the delay.)

If you want to read about adverbs, fragments, or rules thatdon’t apply to English, please check out my previous posts in this series. Today, I’ll respond to some comments made on my last post.  

Briane suggested I should talk about adjectives. Adjectives aren’t as universally hated as adverbs are, but there are some authors and editors out there who feel they should be minimized. My hypothesis that hatred of adjectives goes back to all of the classic 19th century books we were forced to read in school—you know, the ones where every time a character entered a new room, the author spent a page describing the setting in minute detail. Be honest; does everyone read every word of that block of dullness? These days, probably not. I have heard (I don’t have a source, sorry) that because back then people didn’t travel or have television, they needed, even wanted more description. If you hadn’t had much exposure to an elephant, then you would find a description of one interesting. These days, we already know what an elephant looks like and don’t need much description to conjure up an image in our minds.

If the typical modern reader has much more knowledge of the world, then does that mean she doesn’t need any description? I don’t think so. For instance, if the setting is historical or fantastic/speculative, then it will most likely be unfamiliar to her and therefore require some description. Even if your setting is real and well-known, such as New York City, not all readers will know it well. Furthermore, everyone will experience the city a little differently and may therefore not know the city as portrayed in your story. Descriptions and adjectives help readers experience the story as though they were inside it.

I think the key to using adjectives and description in a story is showing experiences and emotions. One of the reasons people read stories is to experience emotions. The words your viewpoint character uses to describe things can show the reader much about the character—their education, their attitudes, and their own emotional state. If one character says a dress is “as blue as the ocean” and another says it’s as “blue as despair,” then you learn different things about them.

So, in summary, here are a few guidelines to help you use adjectives fearlessly and effectively:

    1.   Don’t present your adjectives or description in a solid block of text that intimidates readers. Sprinkle description in in small doses so the action doesn’t get bogged down.

2 2.  Don’t describe everything; focus on what’s most important to the character, and by extension, the reader. Is there something unusual about an object, or something that will be significant later?

    3. Make sure the description fits the viewpoint character. That way, the description serves a dual purpose.

  4.    Avoid purple prose. Simple words, such as “red,” may be just as effective as “carmine” or “scarlet.” That said, make sure your diction fits your style and genre. Historical fantasy may be more tolerant of extravagant description than urban fantasy, though there may be exceptions to this rule. 

Have I forgotten anything? What else would you add to this list?


  1. Stellar advice.

    Kurt Vonnegut said: "It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out."

    That's probably a good rule for adjectives.

  2. I'm not sure there is a good rule for description and adjectives. Even for myself, my tastes in that have changed a lot since I was younger, and I would rather there not be lots of descriptions about settings and clothing anymore.
    My wife, though, still likes to have the scene set for her when she reads.
    So I don't think there's a good line to draw there. It's not like adverbs where some of the uses are just redundant and should be cut for that reason.

  3. Nice quote from Vonnegut, Briane.

    Andrew, it's true there's no "rule" for description and adjectives and that the appropriate level is a matter of taste. It's still helpful to think about when and why you might want to include description.

  4. As the first book on writing I ever read said, 'The smokey tendrils of dawn' is sometimes just a cloudy morning. Use with caution.