1. Tall for a hobbit

    Tall for a hobbit Member

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    Adjectives and adverbs: the correct balance of descriptive text

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Tall for a hobbit, May 25, 2018.

    Hi all,

    I'm a new writer. Though I have always written as a hobby, I'm now trying to make sure my writing is readable and perhaps even enjoyable.
    I often feel reticent to offer descriptive text, for both flavour and to convey information, because it can very quickly become too busy or clunky.
    Despite this, I often find that some of the authors I enjoy seem to almost drown their text in descriptive words, and I'd hardly noticed until the subject had started to occupy my mind. These are successful fantasy authors - George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb - and whether their weighty descriptions are to my taste or not, obviously this must mean that a writer can get away with a certain amount of more descriptive phrasing, but when does it all become too much?

    I'd be really interested in gathering a few opinions.
     
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  2. DeeDee

    DeeDee Contributor Contributor

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    If the text seems to "drown" then it appears you are struggling to go through the descriptive passages. But I, for example, don't see any drowning text. Everything seems to be in the right amount, to my taste. So for me those authors have found the right balance. Readers have different tastes, there is no one measurement for all. There are authors who write with less description, perhaps try to read those? There's a lot of fantasy books out there.
     
  3. Tall for a hobbit

    Tall for a hobbit Member

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    Maybe I misrepresented my opinion - I enjoy the writing by the authors I mentioned, I only said that because it was surprising to me when I actually paid attention to how much descriptive words were used. I don't struggle with that kind of writing at all, it's just that my own writing can often seem too descriptive to me, but then the examples I go through seem to be just as wordy. Maybe I'm over thinking it, but because I haven't worked out whether I'm putting too much in I thought I'd see what others think.
     
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  4. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's not about the amount of adjectives you got but whether it's effective and natural. If it comes in a timely manner (where the reader is interested or it is important info), if it flows, if it's evocative. Also, if it's evenly distributed - it'd stand out like a sore thumb if you suddenly throw in three pages of description where before there were only one or two lines max. Description, and the amount of it, has to fit into the tone of the writing and of the scene.

    How much or how little description you really use has a lot to do with style, and I think getting that balance is all part of finding your style.

    Generally speaking you should take care about rhythm of sentences, the pacing of the overall descriptive passage lest it comes across like infodump or a list - varying rhythm helps break the description down into something more palatable. Again, the rhythm/pacing of your sentences and overall passages will be part of your own writing style.

    As a rule, you probably shouldn't have more than two adjectives following any one noun, and in a single sentence you wanna take care not to use too many adjectives or it becomes overcrowded. You wanna space the descriptors out a bit, and you wanna get creative - description isn't always about adjectives. It's about metaphors and similes, but it's also about turns of phrases. If you have an adjective-noun pair, it's a good general rule not to have too many such pairs in a single sentence - again, two max. When you start feeling a repetitive sort of rhythm, that's when you should probably cut back on some of the description or vary the way you convey that description a bit. These are only general rules that I adhere to - there's never any "never"s with writing really. But on the whole, I've found these effective.
     
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  5. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Since the core of the question you pose comes down to taste and preference, my caveat in advance is that my answer also clearly speaks to my tastes and preference.

    What I find difficult to engage with the writers you mention is when the detail of description is paint-by-numbers and literal. As a reader I don't want descriptions to be hand-drawn with words. This bores me to tears and adds nothing to the writing.

    "The castle was very large with several courtyards, and the stone was dark grey granite with moss in some areas. It was of the typical Westerosi style of three hundred years ago, having taken a remodel at that time, though the earlier style of construction could be seen in certain areas, lower to the ground...."

    Blah, blah, blah... God save me, I'm flipping pages at this point. I didn't sign on for an architecture text book or a history of Westerosi castle-building styles. These kinds of details on the part of GRRM are meaningless, literal, obsessive chaff, without any weight or tone or color or presence or feeling or meaning. He's copy-pasting out of his world-building folder and I abhor it.

    He sometimes, though, gives something more like the following:

    "The castle was a behemoth, low and sprawling in the valley. It brooded like an aged shaddowcat, dark and old, but with claws and teeth still sharp."

    Much better, much more to my taste. It's a living thing now, even though it's clearly not.

    So to answer your question:
    Firstly - and pedantic answer is going to be pedantic - never think in terms of "getting away with". You get away with a crime. You get away with shoddy workmanship. You get away with clocking in late. Getting away with never answers to anything positive.

    In the case of the writers you mention, they aren't getting away with anything. They are very purposefully, very intentionally answering a known desire in a reading population. I may deplore the kind of description I mentioned above, but many readers relish it. They want that hand-drawn feel to the writing. They want flat, literal visuals to paint the scene in their mind's eye. They've been trained to it because a lot of the genre is like that and has been like that since the beginning. GRRM is perfectly capable of giving more abstract and metaphorical description, because every once in a while he does. But in large part, he's writing with his readers in mind, and it's very deliberate. He's not getting away with anything.

    When did it become too much for me? By about the 3rd or 4th chapter of the first book. But I've stuck with it because I can't very well criticize or cite a work about which I know nothing. ;)
     
  6. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    I know it's a typo, but in the context of your post, I thought it was very apt :supergrin:

    Anyway, agree totally that no one's "getting away with" anything. It's as if to say being descriptive is something bad, something wrong - just because being minimalist is trendy doesn't mean descriptive writing is something to be abhorred.
     
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  7. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Ha! Freudian slip. :-D I fixed it. :bigwink:

    For me, personally, in my little Universe of the Wrey, it's not so much about minimalism as it is about my dislike of literalism. You can stretch a metaphor across pages, just ask China Miéville. ;) I just don't personally like flatly descriptive descriptions, and the more detailed they get (be it through adjectives or adverbs or continued deployment of more nouns etc.) the worse it is for me. It feels like a really big bowl of Nothing Flakes™ that I'm being forced to eat with skim milk. :blech:
     
  8. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    Nothing Flakes with skim milk lol :rofl: Bet you enjoyed Girl with the Dragon Tattoo then!? I found his writing sorta dry, and the twist rather predictable (I've read my fair share of crime fiction). I also couldn't make it through Lord of the Rings - I know Tolkien's a good writer but I really can't take that amount of description. And I'm a descriptive writer! Not sure how literal Tolkien was, but Larsson was pretty dry.
     
  9. DeeDee

    DeeDee Contributor Contributor

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    And at the same time Dan Brown and Tom Clancy sell gazillions of books filled with dense encyclopaedic descriptions of extraneous stuff like the history of Italy, weaponry and international politics which have zilch to do with the actual plot. There are even readers who pick those books especially for those descriptions.
     
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  10. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    Just as Twilight or perhaps 50 Shades had young writers everywhere lamenting the death of the art of writing, Dan Brown was mine. Oh how I loathe him. I hated his writing before I ever knew what good writing was, at the age of 17 when I was still consuming every book of trash from the shelves (I was a Terry Goodkind fan) - even then I recognised Dan Brown's writing quality. *shudders*

    And yes, yes, I know he's successful. Books like his are proof to me that readers don't care about quality writing - just an exciting story written in basic quality that is readable. That most readers don't know what quality writing is.
     
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  11. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    Dan Brown is fun to edit. It's strange you bring him up, because I was just working on one of his pieces. "Origin," I guess. I've never read it. I found it on his site.

    As the ancient cogwheel train clawed its way up the dizzying incline, Edmond Kirsch surveyed the jagged mountaintop above him. In the distance, built into the face of a sheer cliff, the massive stone monastery seemed to hang in space, as if magically fused to the vertical precipice.

    This timeless sanctuary in Catalonia, Spain, had endured the relentless pull of gravity for more than four centuries, never slipping from its original purpose: to insulate its occupants from the modern world.

    Ironically, they will now be the first to learn the truth, Kirsch thought, wondering how they would react. Historically, the most dangerous men on earth were men of God . . . especially when their gods became threatened. And I am about to hurl a flaming spear into a hornets’ nest.

    When the train reached the mountaintop, Kirsch saw a solitary figure waiting for him on the platform. The wizened skeleton of a man was draped in the traditional Catholic purple cassock and white rochet, with a zucchetto on his head. Kirsch recognized his host’s rawboned features from photos and felt an unexpected surge of adrenaline.​

    Which I changed to:

    Under the plume of twin locomotive stacks, a cogwheel train struggled ever upward. It clawed up a track stretched like thread along the cliffs of the Pyrenees. High above and in the distant Catalonia haze, the monastery of San Domingo clung to the highest peaks. San Domingo had endured since the days of Columbus. It was a barnacle fixed to stone and had never slipped from its purpose: to cloister men from the modern world.

    Edmond Kirsch wondered how they would react. They would learn the truth first, for once. No man was more dangerous than a man defending his god. In his youth Kirsch had learned such firsthand, and though he knew what to expect, he would thrust his fist into the hornet nest regardless. The monks would hate him for it, but if he spoke quickly, maybe they would hear reason. Maybe he would live.

    The train reached the summit in a cloud of steam tasting like grease, and with wheels shrieking against the leveled track, stopped at the monastery platform where a solitary figure beckoned. The man motioning to Kirsch was nearly a skeleton draped in the traditional Catholic purple cassock and white rochet, a zucchetto upon his head. Kirsch recognized his host’s rawboned features from the photos sent to him in Bilbao. The dizziness he felt may have been from the heights, or it may have been the liquor of adrenaline. He wasn’t sure. He gathered his valise.​

    Whatever. . . it's revision 1. I'm trying to put emphasis on setting. On pass 2, I would blend in some of the comma breaks around the prepositions. There's a few too many starting the sentences. I know it was because I was copying his structure too closely. I think I would get some shorter lines in there for flow.

    I was bothered by Brown's constant <adj> <noun>, the visual telliness with no other senses (inner or outer), the silly tags on the inner dialog (blah blah, Kirsch thought, wondering), overly dramatic ellipsis, and kind of a lack of presence for the character. (Which I still didn't really get in there either, but at least he has some emotion. Another few pages and it would be there.) I guessed at details to fill things in, so they're just placeholders. I don't know where he was really going with it. And then all the filler connectives. . . surveyed, saw, recognized. Since the MC is just a pair of eyes in Brown's opening, he might as well not be there. I suppose I kept "recognized." Some are okay. That metaphor was strange too. Throwing flaming spears at a hornet nest? That's not dangerous. You're at a distance with a spear. I guess being so close to the beginning, I didn't care for it and thought it should be stronger. And a monastery should cloister, not insulate. That's almost a given. It's nearly a pun.

    But he could crush me with his wallet, so it doesn't matter. haha. I think for next week I'll switch to Meyer's oeuvre.
     
    Last edited: May 27, 2018
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  12. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    My advice (if this is asked for) is to write any way that feels natural to you. If you naturally want to use 5 adjectives at a time and an adverb with every verb, then go ahead and use them. Describe the heck out of everything. Just do what comes naturally to you.

    THEN when you are all finished and have allowed the thing sit for a while—till you've forgotten why you chose those words in the first place—then go through it. If you think you're using too many adjectives, then cut out the ones that are weak. The old wet slippery red ball can become the slippery ball, the wet red ball, the old ball ...whatever adjectives you feel are most necessary, at that time and place, to convey the importance of that ball? Figure out why the ball is important, and use only the adjectives that boost that importance.

    The old saying that every adjective weakens the rest of them is pretty much true. A whole list of adjectives is just going to bog the reader down. The right adjective in the right place can help to crystallise an image or a particular meaning.

    If you feel you're using adverbs too often, don't just cut them. Look for a stronger verb instead. She ran quickly can be substituted with she raced.

    The same with description. Edit any excess you find. My favourite saying is "Write without fear; edit without mercy." If you've written a lot of description, you'll have a lot to work with. So again, pick what matters at that moment and eliminate the rest. What do you want the reader to actually notice? You don't need to describe everything that's there. You only need to describe what you want the reader to notice AND REMEMBER.

    You write what's in your heart and soul, and you express yourself as honestly as you can—but you edit for your reader's benefit.

    How much description is too much? There is no formula of course. Some writing is dense with it, some writing contains hardly any. Some readers prefer dense writing. Others hate it. This is where some feedback from beta readers can help.

    My own feeling is that if you're going to go with the dense description, you need to make it interesting and relevant. It will slow the story down, so make sure you put in in parts of the story where you want your readers to take their time. It also helps the reader to get immersed in the scenes, so description can be wonderful to read, if it's well thought out and well written—and is tied into character and plot, and doesn't just sit outside it. Personally, I love dense description if it enhances my understanding of the story.

    Sparse description appeals to many people, however. I'm not exactly sure why, because it doesn't appeal to me. I think it moves people through the story too quickly, and it doesn't create the same kind of immersion in time and place, unless the writer is VERY skilled. I suppose you don't run the risk of allowing the story to get bogged down if you keep description at a minimum. However, if I'm not immersed in time and place, I often simply lose interest and stop reading. But that's me.
     
    Last edited: May 27, 2018
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  13. Tall for a hobbit

    Tall for a hobbit Member

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    I used the term lightly, but I understand your point. I do feel the same way, and enjoy many writers who vary in style. I love Tolkien's descriptions, and I adore Gene Wolfe's dense prose, but content must prevail. Kawabata writes beautifully, but sometimes I can't even FIND the content, though I wouldn't be surprised if I were missing something.

    Thanks for the insight guys, excellent advice. I think you echo some of my own thoughts, which represent my intentions for creativity and style. I just don't think I always have the confidence to put those ideas into practice, so it's good to get some reflection
     
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