how to enliven your adjectives

How to Bring Adjectives to Life

how to enliven your adjectives pinterestAs a writer, you’re always being told you’re not supposed to pile on the adjectives to describe something. But how else can you share with readers the nuanced vision you see in your own mind’s eye?

David Guterson’s lyrical study of life and death in East of the Mountains offers a surprisingly simple and effective model for the rest of us to follow. His technique is nothing more or less than simply highlighting the details of whatever it is he wants to emphasize.

The entire book is flowing with fabulously detailed prose, but nowhere is this more evident than in an early description of a young woman who offers the protagonist a ride after he survives a car accident.

Guterson tells his audience that the young woman is beautiful, but had he just left it at that, the readers probably would have acknowledged the fact without ever really feeling it. Thanks to Guterson’s adept use of details, subtly scattered through the prose, we come to share the narrator’s opinion of the woman’s beauty. The narration takes the time to show intimate details, such as the way she plays with his dog, the manner in which she hands over a bottle of water, and her posture as she sits in the front seat of her van.

The girl, too, was beautiful, kneeling beside the dog in her rain gear, graceful as a ballerina. Her hair was blond, her eyes blue, and she smiled directly at Ben, holding his gaze with a poise that stirred him. “I like your glasses,” she said.

The girl’s beauty was a torment. Her wet hand moving against the dog’s throat and slowly down the length of the dog’s chest filled Ben with a hollow yearning. He turned away from it.

Guterson’s details aren’t pushy. They don’t shout the truth in the reader’s face and force him to see the woman the way Guterson wants. Aside from his initial use of “beautiful,” he never makes a point of drawing attention to how the character looks.

Her actions and the details used to describe them are mundane and most don’t even pertain to appearance. Rather, it’s the loving attention Guterson showers on her by his focus on the little things that makes readers understand her beauty in the same way the protagonist does.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever tried to describe something by showing the details rather than utilizing descriptive modifiers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Even tho I’ve managed to pare down my adverb usage to practically nothing, I’m fond of adjectives and when I’m finished with a rough draft of a novel, I have to take a weedwhacker and mow down a lot of those adjectives after I’m done. I think I could work on showing the details, yes. ;o)

  2. Nothing wrong with adjectives in general. The problem is when we’re using them in the place of stronger writing. Happy weed-whacking!

  3. I’ve focused on a few details to convey the feeling of forbidden love. In my novel, nowhere did I write my character is deeply, hopelessly in love with his cousin, but the odd details of his physical reaction to her makes it obvious.

  4. That’s the kind of writing that leaves a powerful impact on readers. When we create a story so strong that our subtext does the talking, it has the ability to hit readers directly in their emotional core.

  5. This is something I have noticed. In my early college days my creative writing teacher would push for more description of characters and things. Since then I have gone back to a few of my favorite books and combed through the pages looking for examples of description and not really found anything on the level that the teacher was asking for. In these books sometimes you aren’t even told things like hair color and eye color. A character might be described as having dark hair rather than any specific hue. I like to keep a few of my fav novels on my desk like a reference for such things. If I am stuck trying to think how to describe something I just flip through them to see how that author accomplished the same things–not to copy it of course but rather to use it as an example. I figure that if I really enjoyed the novel the writer must have done something right.

  6. Referencing books that worked for you is an excellent way to jump-start your own descriptions. Studying the craft through “how-tos” is great, but the real education comes through studying the stories that connected with us, as readers, and learning how to use those successful techniques in our own stories.

  7. Great post. I’m always looking at sentences to see what words I can make stronger or eliminate. It’s hard to remember to do the same thing with a paragraph or scene.

  8. If your sentences are strong, your paragraphs and scenes will almost inevitably follow suit.

  9. What a lovely blog design, really fresh and interesting and i love the video tutoring, thats a really nice touch,
    Thats before we mention the top quality content your giving. thanks for the great examples

  10. Thanks so much for your encouraging comment. I’m glad you found the information on the site helpful in your writing journey.

  11. I think the key words here are “scattered through the prose”. I’m a big ‘skipper of long detailed descriptions’ when I read. Stopping for description is usually where I start skimming. (As a writer, I feel guilty, and I know how much of a struggle it is to find each word, but …)

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  12. Definitely. Detailed description, used properly, brings a story to life. Use improperly, it kills it deader than a door nail.

  13. The term description implies observation. What is the writer seeing, hearing, and feeling as she writes, I think is what’s basically at issue here. Then, whether you tend towards a more laconic adjective bare style, or a more wordy approach such as, for example, Somerset Maugham, or to take it to the extreme, Proust, is an artistic choice – is your personal voice.

    When I write I am watching it and hearing it occur on my mental screen. I am, indeed, describing, whatever my style, rather than consciously engaged in cooking something up. As developmental psychologists now tend to agree about how young children naturally learn, I write: From the concrete to the abstract.

    I must confess, however, that I didn’t write my first novel that way. Then, when I was sixteen, I was thinking symbolically about ideas. That is, I was parading symbols of something across the page and cooking up a construct, a plot, to emphasize my ideas. I have noticed from teaching writing and film-making to people, that they also tend to think that way. They use symbols to get across ideas such as taped eyeglasses to indicate, the concept, nurd.

    I am surmising that this thinking in symbols, then dressing the symbols in symbolic attire and with symbolic hairstyles, and calling them characters, and mechanistically pushing these paper-dolls through a contrived snakes-and-ladders plot – which is, itself, a known template and a symbol – is the product of a mis-education. That, I think is what needs to be unlearned so that writers will be freed to write naturally from their own unique insights and perspectives. Then, as a matter of course, they will discover their own voice and their own style.

    L Kurnarsky

  14. Interesting thoughts. I like the the reference to stereotypes as “symbols,” since it removes what is often an unfair onus and allows them to be building blocks instead.

  15. I came to teaching what I had been doing most of my life fairly recently. I rather suspect that I was an ADD kid and similar to how alcoholism can be a manifest symptom of a self-medicating depressive, I retreated into creative endeavors such as writing, music, and later on film making. For me, the difficulty was to force myself out of my creative foxhole, and to confront the reality I did not create.

    I’m not sure if what I’ve described above is my nature or my neurosis – probably it’s both – but teaching what I was fairly competent at has, I think, made me a better human being.

    Teaching has forced my ADD mind to focus on why story-telling is an indigenous art form within all known human societies, and how that process occurs. This is because, for me anyway, to teach story-telling, required a working definition of what and why it is. To talk to my students, or clients about the tools of the trade was obviously useful but, I discovered, that it’s not so much how to wield the tools – the verbs, adverbs, adjective,s nouns – the metaphors, similes, descriptive clauses – the three act construct – that most needed to be mastered so that the author could emerge from a writer.

    What I came to think was most lacking in my student’s writing were unique insights into the human condition and the human journey. To put it another way, most of my students didn’t know what they wanted to say.

    Stories, I think, exist in all cultures because it’s a human need, almost as much as food and water, to assign meaning to our experiences. For experiences without sentience are meaningless. This is how the biological imperative to express your genes unto the future becomes romantic love. Science cannot spin that kind of straw into gold.

    But to do that successfully, for you to tell a story that engages an audience or a readership, for your tale to take people somewhere, there has to be at least these two preconditions:

    1. There needs to be a ‘you’ for you to tell a story and ‘you’ need to know something about who you are.

    2. That ‘you’ has to have something to say about what has value and what doesn’t have value in a life, and those insights need to connect to the pressing needs and interests of at least some fellow human beings.

    L Kurnarsky

  16. I profoundly agree. I don’t believe we all need to understand why we write or even exactly how stories need to work in order to be effective. Some of us work better without knowing the logical side, so that we just unfurl our wild creativity. But I’m a left-brain gal, and I’m always interested in digging into the whys and wherefores of life – and how stories fit into it all.

  17. Recent fiction writer. worked 40 years in corp america before acquiring mfa-fiction in 2009. workshop colleagues have commented on strong use of details in my stories though sometimes they’ve criticized poetic reach or excessive description. wrote poetry for fifteen years and am finding that need to give the object life that comes from spare space demand of poetry can infect my prose. it’s a struggle and a chance to work the middle way but there’s no chance of not relying on the detail and intricacy of form to make my characters work. great subject-thanks! robert donohue

  18. Not everyone loves poetic prose. Personally, I relish it. A beautifully evocative turn of phrase is one of the most intoxicating and memorable things about written fiction. A story can be conveyed effectively in many different media, but only written fiction allows the opportunity for beautiful wordplay within the narrative. Keep on keeping on!

  19. I decided to post on this site for a few reasons, but one was that you, K.M. Weiland, struck me as someone whose main impetus in setting up this blog was you interest in furthering the art of writing. Of course this is only my subjective opinion but I found quite the opposite with some of the other writing blogs that I landed on. Those bloggers seemed more interested in its secondary purpose, to further their own careers and fatten their bank accounts.

    Although, as a professional myself, I fully understand the need to be a business as well, I felt more sincerity, and passion for the art form, on this site. Thank you for that and have a very happy and maybe a little more prosperous New Year.

    Larry Kurnarsky, drscreenplay.com

  20. Thank you, Larry. I appreciate that very much. We’d all like to make a buck off our writing – and making a living would be even better! But I maintain that if we’re not creating art because we love it and hunger for it and because we possess a deep need to share our experiences with others and share theirs in return, we’re not writing for the right reasons. It’s a always pleasure to meet someone, such as yourself, who shares that view. Thank you for your insightful comments.

  21. I hear it, and agree – now to recognize the places in my own writing where I need to improve!

    Happy New Year. 🙂

  22. That’s the challenge for all of us! Happy New Year to you too.

  23. I tend to be on the sparse side of description–perhaps a reaction to English teachers saying “Never start a paper with ‘This is about,'”
    I like trimming it down from excess words, but I tend to trim too far

  24. It’s often better to under-describe than over-describe, but as much as readers carp about description, they definitely don’t want authors to head in the opposite direction and present stories that offer no hint of the characters’ surroundings.

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. It would have been appreciated if you could have offered an excerpt how the author describes the woman instead of our having to go buy the book. Nevertheless, enjoy your blogs.

  27. It’s a book well worth reading if you can find it.

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