Tag Archives: adjectives

#amwriting: creating lean but descriptive prose

wordsSome work is written so starkly it may as well be a phone-book. This tells me that author X has really taken to heart the much-bandied, amateurish idea of no adverbs and adjectives, ever.

That concept is flawed.

It is true that when we carve away unneeded modifiers, we move from telling the story to showing it, which is the goal of every author. But the key here is the word ‘unneeded.’

Some modification of your verbs and nouns is necessary, or you have a ‘Dick and Jane” novel.

See Jane. See Jane run.

Even if the concept for the plot has some merit, a stark, completely bare-bones approach won’t make it worth reading. The idea behind the novel might intrigue me, and I could be curious as to where the author is going with the idea.  But despite being curious, if I don’t enjoy reading the narrative I won’t finish it.

gibberish-american businesses onlineWe all know fluffed-up prose (A.K.A. ‘purple’ prose) is daunting and hides the action, but don’t let a knee-jerk reaction to a bad beta-read by an armchair critic make you go the route of completely eliminating modifiers and descriptors. A well-written narrative is sparing with descriptors and modifiers, this is true—but modifiers and descriptors do exist within every good narrative and are there for a reason.

Sometimes a thought requires a little description: An old man carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This idea could be told several ways, and here are two, off the top of my head, one less wordy than the other. Both use modifiers and descriptors:

Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.

He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

There is a reason that descriptors and modifiers exist in the English language. They add flavor, spicing up a flat wall of words.  Just like salt in the soup, too much is too much and too little is not enough.  We are looking for that happy medium where the prose flows in such a way that the reader forgets they are reading and lives the story.

I read a lot of work that begins with a great concept, but has no substance. If only the author had been had been brave enough to tell a good story these novels could have been great. Instead I was given a laundry list of characters acting and reacting to events with no passion or emotion.

It could have meant something to me as a reader, but it didn’t.

Good prose requires choosing words that convey your ideas in the least amount of space. Modifiers and descriptors do that for us, but need to be chosen carefully, and used only when nothing else will do.

i read because memeIf you are writing a novel you want the reader to live your story and react to the ideas and emotions that you are conveying instead of stumbling over limpid pools of velvet blue eyes or falling flatly into skeletal accounts of boredom. It’s our task to find the middle ground that exists between purple prose and lack of soul.

We want to get the reader immersed in the story, and make them forget the real world for a short time. As a reader, I love it when that happens.

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Achieving a Balanced Narrative

395px-Ellimans-Universal-Embrocation-Slough-1897-AdI was involved (as a horrified bystander) in an online dispute over how much description is needed in today’s genre fiction.  I walked wide of that mess, as it was clear that one author with an online pseudonym was in assassin mode. The other, whose prose had been harshly critiqued, also using a pseudonym, had called in her flying monkeys, all of whom proceeded to tear the argumentative ‘troll’ to shreds.

Ugh.  What a waste of time for all of us, bystanders included. It should have been a civilized discussion about using adjectives and achieving balance when showing and not telling your story.

Sadly, in this case the troll was right, but his attitude was so arrogant, he negated the value of his opinion, with normally sane people reduced to begging him to just ‘shut it.’

The prose in question was far too florid for my taste, forcing the reader to watch every excruciating, drawn out second as the the main character slowly curved his lush, full lips into a sexy, white smile, his pink tongue just touching his full, trembling, lower lip.

Pardon me, I must go barf now.

I prefer to read work written with in a lean style, as too much showing gets in the way of the story. It becomes a matter of the author forcing his vision onto me, as the reader, and is just as unpleasant to read as a narrative that tells you how to feel.

This is my view on the subject of description in the narrative: when you write about a room, any room, you don’t describe the details of room. You tell the character’s story as he enters the room.

What does the character see? What does he or she do in response to those things? Do they use the old wall-mounted telephone? Do they open the drapes? Perhaps he picks up the newspaper, and continues into the kitchen. Each character is different, and will see and do different things, and through those actions your room will come into focus in the mind of the observer–the reader.

Describing emotions is done the same way as describing the setting. We have all been told over and over again that in narrative, the most intimate way to show a feeling is to show the state of the protagonist’s body.

But how do we do that?  Let’s take humiliation:

Her face turned bright red in embarrassment.  

This sentence is what we call telling–the author has baldly told you how the character feels and why. This separates the reader from the sense of being the character. While the character may feel that her face had flushed, it’s unlikely that she would know the exact shade of red she had turned. To make it from the protagonist’s point of view and keep it simple, just write what happened.

Her face burned and she turned away.

Here is my  thought on this subject: we don’t need to get crazy, and give the minute details of her burning flesh heating up until she could see her nose glowing like Rudolph on steroids…we just need simple descriptions that point the reader in the right direction. If our character is really humiliated you can add one more descriptor, but still keep it simple:

Her face burned, and nauseated, she turned away.  

This is as much humiliation as I would put a reader through in one sentence. Realistically, the protagonist would feel the burning of her face, and would feel the nausea. The reader will taste the nausea if you describe the sensations with too much detail so keep the details to the bare minimum.

With that said, it is crucial that you give SOME clues as to what the character is feeling, as the reader will be completely lost without some sort of visual cues.

640px-Bicycling-ca1887-bigwheelersTake a look at what the protagonist’s body might be doing. What did it feel like when you experienced the same emotion? What did your body do? What did you feel inside? Was there a heaviness in your chest? A lump in your throat? Did you feel light-headed or weak-kneed? Did your face burn? Close your eyes and think about how you experience an emotional moment and allow your senses to take over.

With that memory in your head, write it down.

Just remember that it is crucial that you don’t over do it. Just like riding a bicycle, you must have balance in your descriptions: there must be enough description to intrigue the reader, but not so much it overpowers the story.

 

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