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.

 

image by Prawny

* 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?

6 Questions to Ask to Take Your Paragraphs from Blah to Ah

“I huff and puff and struggle with every sentence, paragraph and page – sometimes every word as well.— Aidan Chambers

image by Openicons
image by Openicons

Ask these 6 questions about your paragraphs. I’ll use the following paragraph as an example.

1Before the fateful telephone call, Ella put cut up peaches on a baking sheet. 2She thought Cal would be glad she’d made dried peaches this winter when he ate them. 3She opened the oven door, after the she checked that the oven was up to the low heat needed, and put the baking sheet in. 4She heard her cell on the counter go off. 5She thought it was Cal calling. 6He was probably ready for her to drive over to the school and pick him up. 7She answered her cell.

image by szjeno09190
image by szjeno09190

Question 1: Will the reader feel as if she’s inside the character’s point-of-view?

  • When the author mentions the future fateful call (sentence 1), he takes us out of Ella’s point of view and lessens our later surprise.
  • He also intrudes and tells us that Ella thinks (2 & 5) and hears (4). In her point-of-view, Ella would simply think and hear.

Question 2: Have you varied opening-sentence words, and do you end sentences with words that give readers a sense of the sentences’ meaning?

  • Five sentences start with she. Repetitive.
  • Each ending word in sentences 2, 3, 4, and 6 leave the reader with no gist of the sentences’ meanings (them, in, off, up).

Question 3: Are actions ordered as Ella experiences them?

  • In Ella’s point of view, she couldn’t know yet that a fateful phone call would soon occur (1).
  • We learn Ella checked whether the oven was up to heat, after she opened the oven door (3).
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

Question 4: Does too much action description slow the pace?

  • Do we need to know Ella checked the heat and opened the door (3)? These actions say too much about putting peaches in the oven and slow the story.

Question 5: Can you find better descriptive words and reduce wordy phrases?

  • Drab verbs: be, ate (2); put (4); and go (4)
  • Wordiness: would be glad, when he ate them (2); up to the low heat needed, go off (4); and to drive over to the school (6).

Question 6: Are sentences confusing?

  • Does sentence 2 mean Cal will be glad this winter, or did Ella make the dried fruit this winter?

A Better Rewrite:

image by domeckopol
image by domeckopol

Ella arranged peach slices on a baking sheet. Cal would appreciate her efforts when he snacked on the sweet dried fruit during cold winter days. As she slid the sheet into the oven, her cell on the counter played its jazzy tune. Maybe that was Cal, ready to come home from football practice. She wiped sticky juice from her hands and grabbed the phone.

Note:

  • Arranged, appreciate, slid, played, and grabbed are strong verbs.
  • Opening-sentence words are varied.
  • Baking sheet, winter days, jazzy tune, football practice, and phone all leave us with an aspect of what the sentences are about.
  • The author never intrudes, and we’re in the “now” in Ella’s thoughts and actions.
  • The upbeat actions and descriptions will increase the impact of the “fateful call.”
  • The unedited paragraph is 90 words. The second is 64 with more colorful description.

Use these 6 questions to polish dull paragraphs. Click to tweet.

Can you improve the rewrite?