If you’ve ever heard the phrase “less is more,” then this is the topic to dive into.
“As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” – Mark Twain
I want to be clear before we begin; I am not against modifiers (adverbs and adjectives). I use them. At best, it would be arduous to write completely without them. In the past, I have compared adjectives and adverbs to a strong spice. A little bit here and there adds a fantastic taste, but a strong flavor can quickly overpower a dish if used too much or too often. Can you imagine adding 5 pounds of paprika to a smoked chicken meal, rather than the recommended 2 tablespoons?
So, what is the strategy with modifiers? Real estate, real estate, real estate. Have you ever seen two McDonald’s restaurants touching each other? That would be silly, wouldn’t it? It would only water down the effect each would have individually. Exactly.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and she asked me if I use curse words. To be honest, I was a little surprised that she thought I didn’t. I replied that I do curse, but I save it for when I really need it, so that when I do, it gets that person’s attention. I have a different friend who curses every third word. At that point, isn’t it just another word, as far as the effect goes? In an odd way, it’s like supply and demand. When something is rare, it holds more value.
“They weaken when they are close together.” – Mark Twain
A lot of new writers–I was certainly guilty of this, myself–think that every sentence needs to be a colorful tapestry of words strung together, and that everything needs to “pop” to hold the reader’s attention. Why else do most new writers try to think of anything other than the simple “said” as a dialogue tag? I was quick to discover that there is beauty in a short, bleak sentence. In fact, after a string of medium to long sentences, they are often my favorite ones to write.
“An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” – Mark Twain
By this point, you might be wondering how to avoid over-using them. Let’s take a look at an example:
The tower creaked as the wind burst out of nowhere. Damien gripped the edges of the window as he scoured the ground. The floor tilted, and a cask smacked his ankle.
Notice how you get a good feel of the situation, yet there are no direct adverbs or adjectives. Now, let’s compare it to something I might have written when I was a new writer:
The creaking tower was leaning right when the churning, coursing wind came down over the snow-capped mountain side. Damien tried to walk hesitantly across the turbulent floor, but he could see how instantly difficult that was. He placed his hands determinedly on the edges of the cloudy, dirt-ridden window as he desperately looked across the muddy ground. Suddenly, the floor tilted abruptly, and a small, wooden barrel quickly hit his vulnerable ankle.
Pretty awful, eh? When reading that, you can almost hear the author waving his/her hands saying, “Hey! This is super dramatic, everyone!” instead of allowing the reader to feel and experience the scene to decide for themselves. Those two were exaggerated examples to make a point, but how about another example that is a bit less obvious. Think to yourselves which of these two is a better read.
Jack stubbornly hung onto his dagger, eyeing everyone in the larger room. “You didn’t think I would find out?” he asked acidly. He wildly threw the sharp dagger at the nearest person and walked away quickly.
Jack gripped his dagger, eyeing everyone in the room. “You didn’t think I would find out?” he asked with a sneer. He flung the blade at the nearest person and ran.
I hope I’m not coming across as a modifier hater. I just wish that someone had told me all this when I first started writing. It would have saved me months of thinking that I had to write a certain way. As we discussed, your readers don’t want to be told how they should be feeling via the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. They want to feel it and decide for themselves.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.