Writers want readers to picture the multiple-faceted things in their stories. Try these tips on when to use adjectives and how many in an adjective string.
Evaluate the Need for Adjectives
- First, decide whether the object is worth highlighting.
- Is it something you want the reader to picture and then move on?
- Or does it need description to create a better visual for the setting?
- Or is it important to the scene’s purpose?
* Cara opened the door and bustled her bags inside.
No adjectives moves the story along.
* Cara opened the front door and bustled her grocery bags inside.
Perhaps the sentence is in a scene’s opening paragraph. The reader learns Cara enters the front of the house and she’s been to the grocery store.
* Cara opened the door and bustled her suitcases inside.
Use specific nouns when possible. Suitcases works without using adjectives, such as in traveling bags.
* Cara opened the men’s bathroom door and peeked inside.
If men’s was omitted, the reader would miss important information.
Do objects need more than one adjective?
- Two adjectives adjacent to the object (noun) separated by a comma can cause the reader to stop at the second adjective and reevaluate his image. His re-evaluation becomes cumbersome with a string of adjectives. Usually, one adjective works best.
* Cara opened the tall, massive door and hustled the inexpensive, jute gunny sack inside.
Pick one adjective for the door. Above, the reader imagines a tall door then stops to put heft on the door. To me, massive is the better descriptor. If tall is important, include tall in another sentence: The woman tossed the sack to Jack and closed the tall door.
The definition of a gunny sack is an inexpensive bag made of burlap formed from jute, hemp, or other natural fibers. Inexpensive is unnecessary. Jute may not be needed either.
* Cara opened the massive door and hustled the gunny sack inside.
This flows well and gives the reader good images.
Here’s another example. I’ll improve it by inserting and removing adjectives.
Andy slouched in in his overstuffed, gray, faux-leather chair and wiped beads from his lip. Little moving air reached him from the cracked-open, sash window or the sweeping, blue fan in the left corner. What could he do to escape the heat?
Andy slouched in his faux-leather armchair and wiped sweat beads from his upper lip. Little breeze reached him from the cracked-open window or the sweeping fan in the corner. What could he do to escape the heat?
The paragraph is about how hot Andy is. I’ve edited the paragraph to focus on heat.
I added sweat to identify the beads and upper to dash the image of beads on his lower lip. I chose faux-leather from the adjectives describing his chair. The reader may imagine skin sticking to faux-leather in the heat.
I changed the noun, chair, to armchair to improve the image without using an adjective. I replaced moving air with the noun breeze to avoid another adjective-noun combination. I selected sweeping over blue for the fan because sweeping creates movement. I removed sash because it’s not important and slows the sentence. Likewise, I removed left.
Try these suggestions on using adjectives to improve your paragraphs. Click to tweet.
What might be an instance when two adjectives separated by a comma are needed?
Suddenly unemployed, Allie Masterson returns home to Cary, North Carolina where she caddies for her father on the PGA Seniors Tour. There, she encounters a man who possesses an alluring gift of reading the contours of the green. Fascinated with his uncanny ability, Allie is excited to meet the Green Whisperer—until she discovers that the easygoing caddy is actually Shoo Leonard, the boy who teased her relentlessly when they were kids. Despite Allie’s reservations, when Shoo is faced with having to overcome a hand injury, she agrees to use her sport science degree to become his trainer…and then she falls for him.
Shoo Leonard is grateful to Allie for her singular determination to get him ready for the PGA tour, but he isn’t ready for anything more. Still raw from a broken engagement and focused on his career, he’s content to be her fist-bumping buddy…but then he falls for her.
What seems like a happily-ever-after on the horizon takes a turn when Allie decides she’s become a distraction to Shoo’s career. Is it time for her to step away or can The Putting Green Whisperer find the right words to make her stay?