Monday, May 20, 2013
The Rules of Writing-Parts of Speech-Adjective 3
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: May 24, 2013
For writers, what’s in an adjective?
We need adjectives to spruce up our sentences, but like everything in writing, the trick is to insert the right word in the right place.
Think of a cake. We have a piece of sponge cake of a given shape and size. This is the plot. Next, we cover the sponge with icing. This is the story. Rather than slapping colored stuff all over the cake and emptying a boxful of sequins and rhinestones over it, a sensible confectioner will stand back, ponder the overall design he dreams for his creation and set to work. He will pipe a little dab here, lacy bits over there, curlicues on the edges and feathery patterns on the sides. Gradually, the lump of baked dough and sugar will metamorphose into an object of rare beauty. Naturally, besides sensitivity, aesthetic, and color sense, there’s craft involved. The cake must taste good and have the right spongy texture, richness, and aroma. There are so-so cakes and scrumptious masterpieces.
At school, teachers advise students to use many adjectives to dress sentences and add interest to their writing. This is sound advice for learners, but fiction writing is an art form.
Take an average grade school student’s story:
John, a dark-eyed boy with unkempt dark hair, about five foot three and plump, walked slowly down the street. He was coming to pick up his girlfriend to take her to the ice-cream parlor for her favorite vanilla sundae. Mary, his red-haired, shapely, and gorgeous girlfriend, sat calmly toying with her hair on the wooden steps leading to the wraparound porch fronting her stuccoed house.
There’s nothing wrong with the tale. The student has a good grasp of vocabulary: unkempt, shapely, wraparound, stuccoed... nice. It’s a descriptive passage, telling, and empty of meaning beyond that of the words themselves. Both John and Mary are over-described and one wonders if glossing about their plans, or the house’s construction, adds anything to the scene. Fourteen adjectives are unnecessary.
A fiction writer would zero in on the relevant issues: John is shabby and overweight. Mary is beautiful. John is on his way to pick her up. She’s waiting for him.
John strolled down the street, the breeze toying with his tousled dark hair. A smile tugged at his lips when he spotted Mary on the front steps of her porch. She flicked her flaming mane, and John sucked in his belly, once more awed that such a beautiful creature was his girlfriend.
Four adjectives and no adverbs tighten the prose. But the important issues in the scene are shown rather than told. John is chubby and self conscious. His hair is in a mess. He’s in love with a gorgeous redhead. We have hinted at her beauty and his ungainly appearance, but the rest is only implied.
The soul of prose is in the verb, followed closely in importance by the noun. Choosing these with care will enrich any writing. Next in the list are adjectives followed by the remaining parts of speech.
“The dog ran down the street” is an excellent sentence; it tells us about who does what and where, but it doesn’t mention or hint at anything beyond “dog” and “ran.” A student may succumb to temptation and add handfuls of icing to decorate an otherwise dry sentence. Add a couple of adjectives plus a couple of adverbs and the sentence reads: “The scruffy and multi-colored dog ran very quickly down the road.” Not bad. Now we know much more about the dog and how it ran. But the question is: Do we need the adjectives and adverbs?
“Scruffy and multi-colored dog,” begs for a wonderful and descriptive noun: “mongrel.” “Ran very quickly,” begs for a precise verb signifying exactly the action: bolt, dash, fly, etc. “The mongrel bolted down the road,” describes the dog and how it ran.
Using few adjectives and fewer adverbs compels the writer to seek strong verbs and nouns, which brings us to the gregarious nature of adjectives and the bent many writers have to let them get away with it. “The tall, buxom, and beautiful woman,” carries a fraction of the weight of “The statuesque woman.”
Piling up adjectives is a serious flaw in fiction writing, to be avoided at all costs by choosing the correct descriptor.
When settling down to straighten a first draft, scour the text for nouns qualified by two or more adjectives. In every instance, select the strongest, the one that conveys the image you want to portray and discard the rest. Whenever possible, conjure stronger verbs and nouns to remove adjectives, and the prose will grow.
There’s a joke about adjectives going round editorial circles and expressed in equations:
1 = 1
1 + 1 = ½
1 + 1 + 1 = 0
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
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