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Rhythm and Time – Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives

Two weeks ago, I started my series on rhythm and time in writing by talking about verbs. I think verbs are the bass line for all writing, because if you use the right one, you won’t be tempted to pad your writing with unnecessary descriptors. However, sometimes you need descriptors. And what part of speech do we tend to reach for (aside from adverbs, which I’ve already discussed)? Yup—adjectives.

There’s not as much vitriol in the writing community toward adjectives as there is toward adverbs, but there is a trend toward sparer writing. Those who object to the overuse of adjectives point to literary greats like Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy and hold them up as examples of how to do things right. You all know me by now, and you know I don’t think there’s any “right” way when it comes to writing. I like adjectives, and I think that, rather than something to be shunned, we should consider the adjective a line of lovely harmony in the musical score that is our story.

If you think of the main plot, basic characters, and setting of your story as the melody of your piece—the part everyone sings along to—then the adjective is that part of speech that gives your story depth and layers. It’s the harmony. It should enhance the melody rather than overwhelm it.

What is an adjective?

Back to basics, just for review. Adjectives modify or qualify a noun:

big house
six donuts
nice smile
ancient crone
French doctor

There are three basic types of adjectives:

Descriptive adjectives identify a quality of the noun: yellow rose, big cat

Limiting adjectives help narrow the scope of a noun and include possessives (our, his), demonstratives (that, those), interrogatives (whose? which?), and numbers.

Proper adjectives are those that originally came from a proper noun: Spanish ship, Greek tragedy

Adjectives are also classified by position:

Attributive adjectives appear right next to the nouns they modify (see the examples above).

Predicate adjectives are linked to their nouns with a linking verb: Her smile was nice. The doctor was French.

For the purposes of this discussion, it’s mostly descriptive adjectives we’re concerned with. So what kind of guidelines should we use for those descriptors?

Descriptor Rules

Well, as usual with writing, it depends. I’m a sucker for a good long passage of descriptive prose if it’s done well, but if it goes on too long, I’ll give up and skip to the action or dialogue. But how much is too much? Part of it depends on the author and the subject. These are just a few general guidelines I’ve noticed from my own reading and study of what readers object to.

Intense, Repetitive Descriptions

Sometimes, writers develop descriptive tics. I think a lot of them turn up in physical descriptions of characters. Really, we can all stand to tone down our physical descriptions of characters. Readers only need a cursory description early on and perhaps a couple of mentions of particular features, and then they want to fill in the rest on their own. My own tic—I described my heroine’s “honey-blond hair” many times in Ravenmarked. I scaled it back after a beta reader pointed out how often it showed up. Point is—we don’t have to repeat those things over and over. Readers will get the point.

Adjectives in Place of Strong Verbs

This issue ties in with my last post. If we find ourselves using long strings of adjectives, maybe the real problem is a lack of strong verbs. If a good verb can carry your sentence on its own, don’t layer your nouns with adjectives.

Too Many Adjectives in the Same Sentence

I found one of these in my online serial the other day, so I’ll use it as an example of what NOT to do.

Ian scratched at his thin beard as an icy spring breeze pierced the linen tunic he wore under his wool cloak.

Adjective overload, anyone? Good thing I advertise the serial as unedited. There are other problems with this sentence, but just consider how much better it is when I delete a few adjectives.

Ian scratched at his beard as an icy spring breeze pierced the tunic he wore under his cloak.

I left in “icy spring breeze” because I like the contrast of “icy” and “spring.” Spring breezes can be quite different, so those adjectives add specificity and detail. But the other adjectives? Really, they aren’t necessary. You still get the feel for the environment without them, and the sentence doesn’t hurt your brain anymore.

And while this example only looks at one sentence, I think it’s safe to say that any sentence, paragraph, passage, or page that’s hard to read because of too many adjectives can benefit from an edit. Don’t take them all out—just take out enough that your harmony doesn’t overwhelm your melody.

So now we’ve added a bass line and a nice harmony to our story. Next time: The rhythm of dialogue.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Awesome as always. 🙂 Thanks for the article! 🙂

    • Thanks! That sentence from my Ian story still makes my skin crawl… LOL. I’ll have to edit the whole thing once it’s done and before I bundle it into an e-book. 🙂

      Amy

  2. I have just begun reading a book that is so full of adjectives I am probably not going to finish it. When you talk about rhyme I can see how the author has created the melody and timing for his writing. The adjectives are like an electronic beat… repetitive and uninventive, not a good base line. I am now more aware than ever of their overuse. Like you, I will be going back over my own work!
    Again your article has been informative and very timely.

    • Rosalie, I know the kinds of books you mean–you feel like you’re slogging through a swamp. I think we sometimes feel like we can give adjectives a free pass because they aren’t adverbs, but they can definitely be overused!

  3. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    Use of adjectives is in part the style of the day. For instance, I wouldn’t judge a Victorian novel as the same style as today. Hemingway happened, for one. That said, I used to be an adjective fiend (in my defense, I was a preteen to teen during this stage). I would look up words I liked to use to describe a character in the thesaurus so I could describe the person MORE. I had insane tangled strings longer than the rest of the words in the sentence.

    Now, well I hate Hemingway, but I’ve had people compare me. Except I’m really heavy on dialogue compared to him.

    Again, your article was apt and to the point. Big kudos for being brave enough to use a sentence of your own. That’s considered a strong teaching method, you know.

  4. […] 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives Part 3: Dialogue as Your Rhythm Part 4: Make Your Characters Sing Part 5: The […]

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