This week: A Horror of AdjectivesEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about the use of adjectives, how to eliminate ones that confuse readers, and choose the right ones to make your images memorable.
Words of wisdom about adjectives:
"As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out."
~~ Mark Twain
"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English -
it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable.
They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.
An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get"
~~ Mark Twain
"To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. There are no reliable words.
Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence.
He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective,
against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases
and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up."
~~ George Orwell
"The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech."
~~ Clifton Fadiman
A Horror of Adjectives
As a recovering adjective-addict, I admit to an ongoing battle with the temptation to stick them everywhere. Horror writers in particular hear the siren call of the adjective. We want to scare people, to describe our settings, monsters, and scenes in the most gruesome and frightening way possible, and to improve on every image by pouring a syrupy sauce of adjectives over them. We want our readers to shudder and say, "Eww!" It's tempting to leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of scary descriptions-and no noun unmodified by an adjective.
However, adjectives are like seasonings. A few can make a dish delectable, but adding too many will ruin it.
Beware of generic adjectives like: beautiful, wonderful, lovely, pretty, spectacular, ugly, unpleasant, horrid, and dreadful. These words don't create an image your reader can 'see.' They can mean different things to different people. A painting that's beautiful to one person can be ugly to another.
Example: Rachel ran a hand through her lovely hair and watched the sun emerge from behind the ugly clouds to create a spectacular rainbow.
The reader will have trouble picturing this because the adjectives aren't detailed enough. Be specific.
Edit: Jenny ran a hand through her auburn hair and watched the sun emerge from the thunderclouds. A rainbow appeared, its greens, yellows, and pinks sparkling like jewels in the rain.
Instead of simply adding an adjective to a noun, a detailed description can make a scene more vivid.
Example: John ran across the wet pavement in the heavy rain and pulled his jacket tightly around him.
This description is a bit dull, and "heavy rain" can be simplified to "downpour." In this instance, additional description with sensory details will help it become more vivid and realistic.
Edit: John dashed down the sidewalk. Puddles splashed beneath his feet, filling his shoes and soaking his jeans with icy water. The downpour drummed on his head and trickled into his eyes. He hunched and wiped his face with a jacket sleeve. The sodden wool smelled like wet dog hair.
Too many adjectives will muddy the image in the mind of the reader.
Example: Jenny glanced over her left shoulder and a sharp inhale drew cold air into her mouth. The big, black beast reached long, thin, razor-sharp talons between the ripped sections of her dome tent and pierced the fuzzy, red-plaid, flannel material of her sleeping bag.
By the time the reader has reached the end of these lines, they've forgotten the beast and are focusing on the image of the sleeping bag. Not what you want. By getting rid of excess adjectives and putting the most vivid description at the end, the image will be stronger and more memorable.
Edit: Jenny glanced over her shoulder and gasped. The beast's arm snaked through the shredded tent wall and pierced her sleeping bag with razor-sharp talons.
Adding too much description slows down the narrative.
Example: Jenny leaped from the soft folds of her warm sanctuary and hurried out of the tent's main doorway. The full moon shone across the dark forest, its luminous glow creating a scene of obscure blacks and grays that looked like an old-fashioned photograph from her art class. The dirt trail stood out between the dark, black shadows of the swaying oak trees and wound its way through a series of switchbacks all the way up the huge mountain. The creature bellowed in a loud, enraged voice as she ran toward the dimly lit path.
When the tension is high, the reader is excited to know what will happen next. It's the wrong time create atmosphere or to describe things that don't affect the action. Some adjectives don't enhance the noun, like adding "dark" and "black" to "shadows." Shadows are always dark. Also, adding "loud" to "bellow" is unnecesary and redundant because a bellow is loud.
Edit: Jenny leaped away from the creature and dove out the tent's opening. In the moonlight, the trail shone between the skeletal silhouettes of trees. She raced toward it. The monster's thunderous bellow ripped through the air behind her.
(Let's hope Jenny gets away from the predicament I put her in! )
Next time you're revising a story, limit the use of adjectives and make sure you're using ones that create the most striking image. Here are some things to remember:
1. Use detailed adjectives instead of generic ones.
2. Don't use too many. More than two or three per line will overload the reader.
3. Concentrate the adjectives on your strongest image, the one you want your reader to remember.
4. In an action scene, don't stop the flow by describing setting or unnecessary things.
5. Make sure the adjectives enhance the noun and aren't redundant. (No need for something like "dark, black shadows.")
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Some great stories (and a poem) that demonstrate good adjective use. Enjoy!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter!
Milhaud - cat's napping - I loved your newsletter on the use of juxtaposition. Maybe I could unleash the creature in the cellar of Carbonado School and allow it to terrorize the prom dance after the electricity goes out.
That's a great idea, Milhaud. I'm scared just thinking about it!
dejavu_BIG computerprobs - Great Newsletter, LJPC, I really liked the examples you gave on Juxtaposition. Very interesting and thought provoking.
Thanks! I aim to provoke.
Taniuska - Great topic... I love it when stories use juxtaposition since it makes the situation that much more dramatic and suspenseful, plus gets the reader thinking. Movies use juxtaposition a lot. At the end of a scene eg. someone kills a vampire, and the opening of the next scene has someone carving a roast.
Oh, I like that image. It's clever. Sometimes, I'm jealous of filmmakers because they can use so many visual devices, but then I remember that we can delve into character more deeply.
Vampyr14 - Great newsletter! Juxtaposition can also be used to change the meaning of any individual thing. It's a technique used often in propaganda or advertising. During WWII the Nazis juxtaposed images of Jews eating with ones of scurrying rats to underline their view that Jews were vermin. Done well, it can be an incredibly powerful tool. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
Wow! That's a terrific (and horrible) example. Thanks for sharing your extensive film knowledge.
spidey - I love a good juxtaposition! I think most great conflicts in books and films start with a really good juxtaposition, and sometimes they're so subtle that we don't even notice them! Great Newsletter!
Thanks, Spidey! You're right, juxtaposition can be powerful even when subtle.
Nicki <3's Mara!! - Great NL, Laura! Juxtaposition is a fascinating device to play with, and your examples were spot on. Speaking of LOST, my kids and I are hooked, watching the entire season on Netflix. I never missed an episode the first time around, and now we stream episode after episode and lose whole afternoons because of it. Fun!!
What a great way to spend your afternoons - lost in LOST!
BIG BAD WOLF submits: "Army of Men and Monsters Intro" for your reading pleasure, and adds:
I can think of three things that are scary- Werewolves, Being drafted into the army, and Finding out that your Drill Sargent is a Werewolf. How do you get out of that one?
Thanks for writing, BBW!
Ŵeb☆Ŵiɫch TY4theSunDr.J! - Fine Newsletter, Laura. It reminds us to find the thrills and chills in the most unexpected place at the most unexpected time. I like that!
Fright on, my friend!
I most certainly will 'fright on,' and you're right, 'the unexpected' is what gives juxtaposition its power.
Phoenix - Great first newsletter, Laura! I agree that juxtaposition can be a great tool to make our descriptions better. Thanks for the reminder.
You're welcome, Phoenix. And thank you for commenting. I was afraid no one would. Glad I was wrong.
Lorien - Great newsletter, Laura! I look forward to reading your Horror newsletters in months to come.
Thanks so much, Lorien. I'm really looking forward to writing more of them!
Iritegud - Thanks for plugging both of my Christmas items. Dan
You write so well, it's hard not to include even more from you! Thanks for commenting.
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