Depth in a narrative is created by many layers. One layer we must look at involves prose, words we use, and how we phrase things. The way we use modifiers and descriptors plays a significant role in how our work is received by a reader.
In writing, we add depth and contour to our prose by how we choose and use our words. We “paint” a scene using words to show what the point-of-view character is seeing or experiencing. Yes, we do need to use some modifiers and descriptors.
Modifiers are like any other medicine: a small dose can cure illnesses. A large dose will kill the patient. The best use of them is to find words that convey the most information with the most force.
When we refer to modifiers, what do we mean?
Any word that modifies (alters, changes, transforms) the meaning and intent of another word is a modifier. Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail.
We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” and “besides.”
What are descriptors? Adverbs and adjectives, known as descriptors, are helper nouns or verbs—words that help describe other words. They are easily overused, so these words are often reviled by authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.
What is a quantifier? They are nouns (or noun phrases) meant to convey a vague number or an abstract impression, such as: very, a great deal of, a good deal of, a lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which I think of as a thought or idea describing something without physical or concrete existence.
One of the cautions those of us new to the craft frequently hear are criticisms about the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we habitually use. This can hurt, especially if we don’t understand what the members of our writing group are trying to tell us.
Perhaps the number of modifiers isn’t the problem, but the forms we use fluff up our narrative.
Perhaps you have been told you use too many “ly” words or descriptors. Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? You may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word when speaking.
However, if you have used “actually” to describe an object, check to see if it is necessary. Is the sentence stronger without it?
- The tree was actually covered in red leaves.
- Red leaves covered the tree.
Many descriptors are easy to spot, often ending with “ly.” When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly.” A list will pop up in my lefthand margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.
- “ly” words are code words – a kind of mental shorthand in a first draft. In the revision process, they tell us what we need to expand on to fully explore the scene as we originally envisioned.
It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change it to a simpler form or remove it and rewrite the sentence.
Think about it – bare is an adjective, as is barely.
Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You have already spent months writing that novel. Why not take a few days to do the job well?
Sentence structure matters. Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are describing affects a reader’s perception. Adjectives work best when showing us what the point-of-view characters see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.
Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.
In the above sentence, the essential parts are structured this way: noun – verb (sunlight glared), adjective – noun (cold fire), verb – adjective – noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes). Lead with the action or noun, follow with a strong modifier, and the sentence conveys what is intended but isn’t weakened by the modifiers.
The above scene could be shown in many ways, but a paragraph’s worth of world-building is pared down to 19 words, three of which are action words. This is an area I struggle with, and it occupies most of my attention during revisions.
Shakespeare understood the beauty and the power that contrasting modifiers can add to ordinary prose without making it artificial. Consider this line from his play, As You Like It, written in 1599:
It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. — As You Like It, Wm. Shakespeare, 1599.
What brilliant imagery Shakespeare handed us—strong words with powerful meaning: dead, great, reckoning, little. His prose moves us as we read or hear it spoken because he uses words with visual impact.
Most writers know that participating in a critique group requires delicacy and dedication. They know it involves restraint and the ability to allow other authors to write their own work. Most groups don’t micromanage a manuscript because they know how too much input and direction can remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.
These are dedicated people who love reading and want your work to succeed.
As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we must write from the heart. That means using modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they are needed. It’s a balancing act. We must be mindful of the form and the context of how a modifier fits into our phrasing.
The following image is a list of code-words I seek out and re-examine when I begin revising a first draft. Each word points me in the right direction. All I have to do is rephrase that sentence with stronger forms of the “ly” word.