Adjectives Suck…

Adjectives suck the energy from your prose.

Well, maybe not always, but much of the time.

We touched on the concept of “show, don’t tell” in a past discussion that dealt with the importance of concrete nouns and active verbs. Another way to make sure our images remain strong is to minimize our use of adjectives and adverbs.

Although both of these modifiers have their place in prose, it is always best to use strong enough nouns and verbs so that modifiers are unnecessary.

The idea is to make your prose as touchable as possible. Active verbs, concrete nouns, similes and metaphors will get the job done. Unfortunately, writers often turn to adjectives instead of taking the time to craft images that stand on their own.

Take a moment and consider the following National Geographic image by photographer Jason Whitman. For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on the clouds.

Lightning Storm; National Geographic

Lightning Storm; photographer Jason Whitman

In trying to relate this image in prose we might write something like: Low black clouds gathered in the distance.

While that gets the image out there, a far more powerful way to show the clouds would be to use simile or metaphor, while also eliminating the adjectives “low” and “black,” like this: Clouds gathered like battle smoke in the distance.

In the second example the “battle smoke” simile suggest blackness and lowness, while also introducing destructive power. Note also that no adjectives or adverbs are used.

We could go a step farther and present the image in present tense to make things more immediate and add even more power: Clouds gather like battle smoke in the distance.

Of course, while present tense makes things more immediate not every story lends itself to present tense. Still, it can be a powerful option.

You could even give the clouds themselves power with: Clouds gathered for battle in the distance.

Modifiers are not all bad. They are valid prose elements and do serve a purpose. For example, if your story has minor supporting characters or setting elements, it might be useful to say “He considered her a beautiful woman,” to express one character’s perception of a minor female character. Since it is the main character’s perception that is important and not the actual physical attributes of the minor female the adjective “beautiful” takes nothing away from the image.

If, however, “beautiful” were used as an adjective to describe a primary character readers would have no idea what she actually looked like. “Beautiful” is far too subjective a term to give readers something concrete to see; beauty means something different to each of us.

Adjectives are also acceptable when seeded in amongst other more vivid images within a piece, even when they relate to primary characters or setting elements. Capture as many of the key elements as possible using solid nouns and verbs then plop an adjective in here and there for less important elements.

For example, using the image above, once you have set the strongest possible imagery in place to show that setting, you might add “The ground grew suddenly cold.” Since the clouds and the threat they bring are key to this scene, the fact that the ground is cold might not be all that important but may come in handy later on. That said, the fact that the ground grew “suddenly” cold actually adds an air of something unexpected happening. So in this case the adjectives actually add strength instead of weakening the imagery.

Mark Twain put it simply yet eloquently when he wrote “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable.”

While you may find some adjectives and adverbs useful in your writing, it is always a good idea to examine every single instance for ways to eliminate them. Some will stay, some will go. But at least you’ll know that each one that remains is there to further your story.

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About Bill Weiss

Bill Weiss is a creative and freelance writer and founder of the Writerspark creative writing group.
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