Tips to Improve Story Description When Using Adjectives

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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

 

  1. 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?

Examples

* Cara opened the door and bustled her bags inside.

No adjectives moves the story along.

 

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* 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?

 

  1. 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.

Examples

* 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.

Example

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?

 

Rewrite

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?

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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?

A 50-Item Checklist You Won’t Want to Leave Your Scene Without

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

—Jordan E. Rosenfeld (Make a Scene)

checklist  

Scene Checklist

Purpose

[  ] Has 3 reasons the scene should exist. Possibilities:

  • Progresses or changes character’s goal
  • Moves plot forward
  • Adds conflict between opposing characters
  • Introduces a character
  • Develops a character
  • Foreshadows
  • Raises stakes

Structure

[  ] Clear beginning, middle, climax (disaster), and end. 

[  ] Opening hook – lines that grab reader.

[  ] Opens mid action – not description or explanation.

[  ] Action scenes – goal->conflict->disaster. 1

[  ] Reaction scene – response->dilemma->decision. 1

[  ] Point of view (POV) character – character with the most to lose in the scene – reveal immediately.

[  ] Reader immediately grounded in who, what, where, when, why.

[  ] Setting – revealed through what POV character reacts to, sees, hears, does.

[  ] Something’s at stake, or story stakes are raised or reinforced – make situation worse, or stakes matter more.

[  ] Fear hovers – character might not meet her scene goal.

[  ] Actions –interesting; advance plot or exhibit character; performed in real time. 

[  ] Pace – appropriate for what’s happening.

[  ] Mood, tone, or author’s voice – realistic for scene, and the book’s genre.

[  ] Obstacles – people, events, emotions, secrets get in the way of characters meeting their goals.

[  ] Climax (disaster) – relevant to the plot or characterization.

[  ] Element of suspense, surprise, twist, or foreshadowing – creates anticipation; delivers a worthy payoff relevant to plot or characterization.

[  ] Metaphor or symbol.

[  ] Ending hook – transitions to next scene; entices reader to read on.

Hero/Heroine

[  ] Clear wants, emotional and physical – drive actions, dialogue, thoughts.

[  ] Pushes away from something negative; pulls toward something positive (emotional or physical). 1

[  ] A hint of victory; two hints of failure. 1

[  ] Conflicting values.

[  ] Reader can identify or empathize; knows whom to root for.

[  ] Secondary characters – clear purpose for being in scene.

[  ] Hints of wounds, fears. Or competencies.

[  ] Reactions shown – to stimuli that affect feelings.

[  ] Balanced emotion, dialogue, internalization (considering scene type).

[  ] 5 senses included – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

Dialogue

[  ] Tight, every word needed.

[  ] Interesting; moves scene forward.

[  ] Natural – leaves out boring parts of actual dialogue.

[  ] Characters’ voices – distinctive; could know speaker by his word choices.

[  ] Reveals or hints at emotions, undercurrents, or secrets.

[  ] Reveals character, plot, conflicts, or bits of important information.

[  ] Includes a zinger – jibe, bold truth, dry or humorous comment. 1

[  ] Action beats or simple speaker attributes (said) – identifies speaker.

Avoid

[  ] Clichés – in dialogue, characterization, plot.

[  ] Coincidences (something drops in to save the day).

[  ] Vagueness (it, that, pronouns that don’t tie, etc.).

[  ] Clever writing that adds nothing; confuses.

Remove

[  ] Boring, purposeless sentences and paragraphs.

[  ] Detailed body movement descriptions.

[  ] Unnecessary explanations.

[  ] Weasel words – except when they work in dialogue.

Style

[  ] Shows often; tells as needed.

[  ] Clear, concise, uncomplicated sentences.

[  ] Correct words (dictionary and thesaurus).

[  ] Power noun, verbs.

[  ] Short narratives when necessary (getting from one place to another).

[  ] Active voice – limit “was.”

[  ] Positive form used when possible.

[  ] Backload – ending words (sentence and paragraph) that tie to passage’s meaning.

Idea from Susan May Warren’s MBT Deep Thinkers Retreat manual.

Transform your scene with this comprehensive checklist. Click to tweet.

What would you add to this checklist?

10 Awesome Quotes from Writing Experts to Stick on Your Computer

The skill of a skilled writer tricks you into thinking that there is no skill.
—Dwight V. Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Image by Kaz
Image by Kaz

I recommend the following books on the craft of writing. Here are quotes from each to inspire you to get a copy or reread the one on your shelf.

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image by skeeze

On Writing by Stephen King. “Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. … You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes.”

 

 

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass “What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do.”

image by freefaithgraphics
image by freefaithgraphics

Hooked by Les Edgerton. “A tremendous number of possibly good and even brilliant novels and short stories never get read beyond the first few paragraphs or pages by agents and editors. Why? Simple: The stories don’t begin in the right place.”

 

 

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein “We are driven through life by our needs and wants. … If your character doesn’t want anything badly enough, readers will have a hard time rooting for him to attain his goal, which is what compels readers to continue reading. The more urgent the want, the greater the reader’s interest.”

image by geralt
image by geralt

Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. “Motivation is possibly the most important of the three elements of GMC because you can do anything in fiction. … Everything truly is possible as long as you help your reader understand why your characters do what they do. Why they land themselves in impossible situations. Why they make the choices they make.”

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. “So when you come across an explanation of the character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, then rewrite the passage so that it is.”

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. “Dialogue helps to create original characters and move the plot along. If it isn’t doing either of those things, it probably should be cut.”

image by geralt
image by geralt

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. “In Deep [Point of View], we don’t want thoughts or actions told or explained by a third-party; we want to live the events inside the [Point of View Character’s] head.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. “And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”

What writing experts say to push us to write better. Click to tweet.

As a writer, what craft book has spoken to you?