Tips on How to Use Adjectives Effectively in Fiction

 Adjectives are like swear words. The more you use them the less impact they have.

Is there a rule of thumb for how often we should use adjectives in a piece of writing?

The unhelpful answer is: not really. But let’s think about swearing again. Here’s a piece of purple prose with the adjectives removed and replaced with: “swearword.” (You can substitute any swear word you’d like.)

The swearword sun magnified the swearword house until its swearword silhouette filled the swearword skyline. Swearword swearword and swearword swearword rays burned through its swearword, swearword windows and sent swearword, swearword shadows down the swearword hillside.

See, it gets a bit boring after a while,  and tiring to read. Even if we revert to adjectives instead of swear words, it doesn’t read well.

The bloodshot sun magnified the crumbling house until its looming silhouette filled the darkening skyline. Fiery red and flaming amber rays burned through its stark, gaping windows and sent long, deep shadows down the heathery hillside. 

It’s exhausting to read something with that many adjectives.

 So the first rule for adjectives is: less is more.

Notice how in the passage above it becomes hard to know where to focus. 

The second rule is: adjectives should enhance your writing, and make it clearer. 

 Several years ago, as a beginning writer, I entered a short story contest for which every entry received a critique. My story got nowhere and the critique it received got screwed up into a ball and thrown around the room, eventually landing in the trash. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but I do remember the general gist was: over-written, purple prose with a side order of flowery writing. After I’d ranted a while about the idiocy of the competition readers I sent it out to another contest. Bizarrely, it came third.

I felt vindicated. Sort of. Then a few months ago when I came upon that story, and I realised the first competition’s readers knew more about literature than the second. Luckily, although that story was published, the journal had such a tiny circulation that only a few hundred people will ever have seen it. Here’s a snippet: Hannah painted the wide open spaces in front of them, and tiny flowers shyly hiding their heads.

The story is about a childless couple and I think the idea of that sentence was to convey their loss, but it is so oblique and full of cliché that instead of illuminating it obscures. In another part: She draws back from its icy coldness…
What she draws back from is a cold hand, so “icy” is (a) wrong: there is no ice on the hand, and (b) superfluous: if I want to use an image if ice, I don’t need “coldness” too. Everybody knows ice is cold! So it could be instead, She draws back from its coldness… or perhaps, Its iciness makes her recoil.

The third rule for adjectives is: choose them carefully.

An exercise many creative writing tutors recommend it to take a piece of writing and get rid of all adjectives. Let’s return to that first passage and see how it is with all adjectives removed:

The sun magnified the house until its silhouette filled the skyline. Rays burned through its windows and sent shadows down the hillside. 

Doing this doesn’t mean we can’t use adjectives, but it does help to show where they are needed and where they aren’t. In this passage, without the adjectives there is no sense of the house being a ruin. But perhaps crumbling wasn’t the best adjective to convey that. It could just mean a house that was in need of repair, whereas the house in this story has no roof or windows. Perhaps it would be better to simply say ruined. To give a sense of it being sunset, we could put back in either  bloodshot sun or long shadows. It doesn’t need both. Because the sun appears first, and because this is the beginning of a horror story, let’s opt for blood! And to keep the blood images going, let’s change a verb. The rays no longer burn; instead they spill.

The bloodshot sun magnified the ruined house until its silhouette filled the skyline. Crimson rays spilled through its empty windows, sending shadows down the hillside. 

So, to sum up: with adjectives, less is more and they should make writing clearer, not confuse or exhaust the reader. As long as you remember that, there are no rules!

Comments

  1. When I read a bit of “purple prose” like you wrote above, I simply know something isn’t right. I wouldn’t be able to read an entire story like that. I can never pinpoint and explain the problem nearly so well, though. Thank you for the lesson.

    1. I had fun writing that first bit of purple prose Christine! And totally, you could not read an entire story – at least not without getting a severe headache!
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. You have dissected and explained an issue I’ve had lately with some of the books I’ve tried to read. Years ago I would sit and pick apart my writing as if I were building a Lego essay. Hours spent looking for the most powerful way to phrase my ideas. Now that I’ve taken up writing again I’m looking forward to practicing and learning it as a craft. I’m so glad I’ve found your blog!

    1. RAWR, when I began writing I’d spend ages trying to find clever ways to describe something and now I really see that plain language can often be the most powerful. Your phrase “as if I were building a Lego essay” is a great example – original yet not overpowering.
      Thanks for your kind comment and I’m glad to have you here!

  3. Pingback: When Writing Won’t Come – A Pig of a Post | Yvonne Spence

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