Friday, July 23, 2010

In defense of modifiers

I just had another student who said, "But I thought we weren't supposed to use adjectives and adverbs!"

Ahem. So I thought maybe I'd perambulate (or percolate?) about modifiers a bit. I'm re-reading a great Georgette Heyer novel (The Reluctant Widow), and marvelling at her adroit use of modifiers to create irony, so of course I'm not going to say that modifiers are bad.

Besides, as you know, I don't think things end up in our language for no reason, rather that every part of speech can add to our sentence meaning and we should never ever ever give up any potential meaning tool. But of course, adjectives and adverbs must be used wisely, and they are more likely than nouns or verbs to be used unwisely.

A couple thoughts about "unwise"--
1) Strong verbs and nouns don't usually need modification or intensification-- you know, you generally don't want "She stared steadily" or "The sky-blue turquoise."
2) "Purple" prose usually is a result of too much intensification: "He immediately felt a passionate upswelling of deep patriotism, and turned adoringly to the bonnie bright flag of his beloved country." What words are essential for conveying your meaning? And be ruthless-- surely they're not ALL essential. We tend to over-modify when we're describing, especially a setting, so pull back and see if you can find other ways to describe, like maybe don't rely so much on -words-. The character's emotional and physical reactions (fear, reverence) can tell a lot, along with positioning (she had to look UP to see the label on the file drawer).

But adverbs and adjectives are useful in many situations. Make them interesting. Couple interesting "emotion" adverbs with action. Heyer has a character "poke rather vindictively at the fire." (The "vindictive" is funny, the "rather" is totally in character, for he's a repressed fellow.) This man also "smiles grimly" and inquires of his brother's health "in his brusque way". In fact, a lot of how I know this man is from the modifiers. Why? Because he is repressed, as I said, and behaves with decorum, and the only way the Real Him leaks out is along the edges. He smiles because that's why you're supposed to do when you're introduced to someone. But he shows his displeasure by smiling grimly.

That is, don't just strew modifiers in there. Use them to tell the reader more about the character. I had a villain once who was coming across as bumbling, which is NOT the way I wanted him to come across. I was on deadline, though, and couldn't afford a full re-write. So I just went through and changed out the modifiers associated with him, and added a few more nefarious ones. So he no longer moved "timidly," he moved "guardedly"- a small change, but an important one. It worked. He now seemed more dangerous, because he was "guarded".

Adverbs and adjectives are part of a process of "modifying" the prose to make it more individual. (He doesn't just smile, he smiles sunnily.) Now of course, you can overdo that, but one suggestion is to use other parts of speech to modify the action or character. For example, look at the verbs and see if they can incorporate a bit of modification, maybe even metaphor. He narrowed his eyes is another way of saying he regarded her narrowly. The point is to make the experience precise and fitted to the character and the action at this moment.

That, of course, and I'm going to say "begs the question," even though we've established in a previous post that I'm misusing the term. It's still a good idea-- that sometimes something is presented that almost requires you to ask a followup question. So how can we say that?? Anyway, the question is, when is it precise and when is it purple? I am in favor of drafting it YOUR way, whether spare or elaborate, and adding or subtracting as needed.

Irony can result from juxtaposing a verb that goes one way with an adverb that goes another. He smiled hatefully. She laughed joylessly. I also like (don't overdo :) imbedding emotion in modifiers, like, "She held out a tentative hand." Modifiers should modify, change the meaning of the unmodified word-- change it to mean what you want to mean.

Now I'm not advising you all to use a lot of modifiers. They show up a lot more in omniscient viewpoint because generally, that level of nuance of observation requires some distance. So if you're in deep POV, think through the urge to modify verbs and nouns and do only what your POV character would do.

But I'm also wanting to affirm the importance of individual voice here. All those edicts about not using adverbs and adjectives? Well, you know, I tend to discount the notion that people can interfere with a writer's voice, that critique groups and editors and teachers can mess with a good strong voice. But then I hear these edicts, and I think, gee, what if I had an editor who told me to cut every adverb? What if my critique group was death on adjectives? Yeah, I think that could mess with your voice.

After all, "voice" isn't about conformity. Yes, of course, conform to the grammatical rules (most of the time :), but a lot of writers are making new rules for each other, rules that aren't rules, that end up limiting narrative and prose options. But we're not supposed to all sound alike! And the stripped-down, unadorned prose that results when modifiers are banned, well, that's not what some of us want to create. So... if you ever tell other writers not to use modifiers, stop. Sure, point out if the prose is verging on purple, if there's a better way to convey the meaning, if the sentence is overcomplicated. But don't impose rules that narrow the allowable WORDS wholesale like that.

I don't want our fictional discourse to be reduced to one type of voice-- clean, contemporary, undecorated. That's a fine type of voice. It is not, however, the best or only voice. We all grew up reading voices that were more elaborate, that reveled in using five words when sometimes one would do, that gloried in intensifying and even exaggerating. The voices were created by writers named Wharton and Faulkner and Heyer and Dunnett and Fitzgerald and Milne, and they're all still read and enjoyed, and worthy of influencing writers for many decades to come.

So never say never. We should all keep that in mind. I know I'm an offender in this regard, because I will occasionally unleash an edict. But at base, there are no rules beyond "make it good." And if we can make it good-- if our voices are strong and individual and convey the story, then our critiquers and teachers should mostly be helping us make it more consistent and more meaningful-- not a different type of voice, just the best this voice can be.

That's not to say, goodness knows, that anything goes, that the fact you typed it with your very own fingers means it's good or even your voice. A writer's voice is no more "natural" than a singer's voice, and is invented and refined more than found. But that's our task, to create a voice. And I hate to reduce our options for producing something new by deeming certain words or parts of speech out of order.

Now I want to ask... I'd always heard about "bland voices" and "generic voices," and being, you know, kind of a bleeding heart liberal type, I would think, "No way! Everyone has a voice! No one is generic!" Then I judged a contest with many entries, and some actually had... no voice. (That is better than a BAD voice, of course, I think.) They didn't take advantage of any technique for infusing more drama and emotion into their sentences. They didn't try to find just the right word or just the right combination of words. The approximate was fine. The voices were mostly characterized by vagueness. I would sort of get the point... but not get the experience. Often the mechanics were adequate (sometimes not), but there seemed to be no attempt to invigorate the very basic prose or select an approach to the scene that would make more than a sequence of events.

It was an interesting experience, and made me think that voice isn't just how we sound, but the choice we make to individualize our understanding and presentation of the story, so that we're the only one who can write it this way. But I think we have to strive to achieve that sometimes, especially if we don't have a naturally intriguing voice.

(And my voice requires adverbs and adjectives, so there.)


Anonymous said...

What a great post! I've always felt the same way, but then was frightened by the "rule police." I think this post is right on!

Jami Gold said...

Alicia said: Modifiers should modify, change the meaning of the unmodified word-- change it to mean what you want to mean.

Yes, this is the crux of the issue. We don't need to say 'the large elephant' because the default idea in a reader's imagination is that elephants are large. If, however, it was a baby elephant, then yes, that modifier should be included. It's the redundant modifiers (and the ones that could be tightened with better noun/verb choice) that should be eliminated.

Thanks for the great post!
Jami G.

Adrian said...

I think one of the pitfalls is when an author uses a bland verb or noun and then "fixes" it by adding a modifier instead of replacing the boring word with a more specific one.

Bland: Jane entered the house.
Modified: Jane cautiously entered the small house.
Sharpened: Jane crept into the cottage.

Julie Harrington said...

I think the goal is to always Write Strong. Avoid the weak and the passive. Obviously not all modifiers or adjectives or even adverbs fit in that category and gosh darn it, sometimes something just *sounds good.*


Corrie said...

Yes! Thank you. I love Georgette Heyer (I was just re-reading Cotillion), and was reveling in her use of language. I've never felt like I could try to go that far though... breaking, or seeming to break, so many rules. But that's the kind of writing I love, words bleed out of me that way. I know I have to earn the right to use language the way she does, but this post was still very encouraging.

gj said...

Simplest correct replacement for "begs the question" is "raises the question."

Other options:

Leads to the question
Makes me wonder why (or how, when, etc.)
I can't help asking, then, why/how/etc.
The inevitable question is ...

Just not "begs the question" unless you're writing about logic, and you mean something along the lines of "failing to answer the question."

If you want more information on the logical fallacy that begging the question refers to, I bet you'd find it at

Leona said...

I love your use of begs the question as it "feels" like part of your voice and what makes you an interesting rather than dry teacher LOL

Another fabulous post. You know, along with the IWM (I'm with Murphy) stamp, I think I need one that says "Great Again" or "This is Fabulous" or something. OOH the last one's initials would be TIF. I think we have a winner...

I read large quantities of fantasy and sci-fi where there is infinite amounts of world building. I think it has made me less sensitive to the usage of adjectives and adverbs as a bad thing. If the author didn't use descriptive words, we would get no sense of the new world or of how it is different from the one we are used to. I like the point that there are sometimes better technical ways to put things, but it is not always better.

In the cottage instance, is a case in point. Adrian says:

Bland: Jane entered the house.
Modified: Jane cautiously entered the small house.
Sharpened: Jane crept into the cottage.

I can agree with that to a point. However, the connotations for crept versus cautiously entered are different for me as a reader. One denotes fear and reluctance, and one denotes, stealth and possibly wrong doing. Same with cottage and small house. I live in a rural area where small houses can be anything from a "cottage" (cute and "English" are the connotations for me on that word) to a farm laborers house. Some are hovels and some are well kept.

My point is that we have to be careful when we are looking to fine tune our work. We need to make sure we don't fine tune it to mean something different than our original purpose.

I'm all for Adrian's word changes, as the original sentence was bland and generic. All I'm saying is to be concise in our changes and clear in our purpose of the meaning of the sentence.

Alicia said...

Corrie, I know. I tend towards the lush (others might call it "purple") and revel in excess language. Oh, well. We can always cut back, right? Easier to cut than add, I always say. :)

Alicia said...

Thanks, gj-- I'll use that with my students. They tend to believe anything in print. They need to be introduced to the idea that there are fallacies.

Edittorrent said...

Leona, do you think that European lit is more... ornate? I mostly read 19th C British lit, and it definitely gets modifier-heavy, but boy, I love it. I feel it.

I was watching the David Tennant Hamlet, and I was thinking that the best direction is -- feel all of the emotion, then try to repress it. Then only the really intense stuff leaks out!

Leona said...

You know the speech about voice? Listen to it. I just got a rejection and the reason is that the story needed more sensory vividness, something I had cut out during final edits thinking it was too flowery. I had already submitted it before I read these last posts and wished I could take it back!

Listen to your voice and what you want the story to be. I like the reference to David Tennant's Doctor Who Shakespeare episode. It's perfect. Words have power. Use them :D