Monday, January 16, 2012

When to use modifiers

Just a minor note as I edit this chapter-- I'm a firm believer in making use of modifiers. Pace, EB White! The language wouldn't have evolved to have adjectives and adverbs if they weren't useful!

However, even I think too much is, well, too much. Sometimes a modifier is an unnecessary and distracting amplification of what's already there.  For example, I had:
Felicity slid the heavy box to the floor and used her foot to push it down the hall.

Well, obviously, if she has to push it with her foot, it's heavy. So I don't need the "heavy."

That said, I'm editing a Regency in the Georgette Heyer tradition.
The sort of stripped down style that might be fashionable now and useful for fast-paced adventure novel won't work in a more leisurely, "voice-driven" social comedy.  That's why we all (including me :) must be careful about issuing edicts about what constitutes effective writing. After all, what is effective in one kind of book might not work in another. I can't even imagine trying to write any comedy, especially social comedy, without adjectives and adverbs (which, because they "modify," carry much of the humor), but more than a couple absolutely essential modifiers will slow down an action book.  Multiple point-of-view will probably destroy the character identification needed for a psychological drama, but will add to the suspense perhaps of a thriller.  With the rise of the internet and the many niches created (knitting mysteries, Midwestern white bread family sagas :), it's more important than ever to know the type of book and what the readers above all enjoy about this sort of book.  What a non-historical saga reader might consider a distraction might be exactly what the typical historical saga reader loves most.

So whatever rules we all espouse aren't really rules-- just thought points that might not be relevant to your story, but might inspire some consideration which might help you enhance aspects of your own voice.



Heather Day Gilbert said...

What a great post--definitely depends on genre and voice. But it's getting increasingly harder to write verbose novels. People just want the facts...sad, b/c I kinda miss those long-drawn out descriptions that I used to skip over in the classics...

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't assume the box was heavy if she was pushing it with her foot. To the contrary, I'd assume it was fairly light. If you want to push a heavy box you crouch down, use both hands and put your weight behind it. Using a foot (for me) usually means your hands are full and the box will slide easily which usually means it doesn't weigh too much. I am having difficulty getting a visual with just that much description, maybe it's clearer with the surrounding text. (My apologies for the rant, I've done too much moving of boxes lately. :/)

Anonymous said...

I actually thought the same thing as the other person on removing the word heavy. I would not automatically assume about the boxes' weight but rather that the person was lazy, or perhaps procrastinating for some reason. However without the context of the conjoining sentences it's really all just hearsay. I also agree that the foot is not the most appropriate method for moving heavy objects for any sort of distance. (Which also throws off the scene for me) You'd only use your foot to shift the box or move it a few inches into the right spot, but I also move boxes around all day as part of my living.

Wes said...

The appropriate use of modifiers is something I struggle with. As you know I'm writing historical fiction set in New Mexico in the early 1800s. Since I was raised on a dirt-poor farm, roam the west on foot and horseback, shoot in muzzleloading matches and hunt with primitive weapons, I often suspect potential readers won't understand situations without more modifiers since most NORMAL people haven't experienced what I have. But then I worry about having too many modifiers.