How to Use Adjectives in Novels

The misuse of adjectives in a novel defines bad writing and often results in a clunky and heavy read. The inevitable rejection letter from the publisher is likely. How can the writer improve writing style?

Creative Descriptive Words

An adjective is a descriptive word that modifies nouns. Examples are, blue, spiky, smooth, juvenile, hard and many others. Adjectives are necessary in prose to help invoke decisive descriptions for the reader. However, reams of descriptions within the novel will often have the effect of slowing pace to the point of stagnation. Like passive writing, it will leave the reader feeling more like a viewer, uninvolved with the story.
Effective Use of Adjectives

Too many adjectives might give the impression that the novelist cannot quite find the right word, and will instead look for a close approximation and attach a modifying adjective to bring it closer. Throughout the novel, the effect will be cumulative and make the novel feel lazy and flabby. Examples of how adjectives can easily be made redundant can be found in the following:

A large stone is more succinctly described as a boulder.
Steady rain could be described as drizzle.
A thick book could be reworded as a tome.

As can be seen, one word is better than two, and in such cases, the thesaurus is invaluable.

Poor Writing with Redundant Adjectives

Some adjectives sneak into the novel that do nothing at all, for instance, "pitch black," or "large mountain." Cutting such adjectives would serve to tighten the prose.

Certain words within prose fiction (excepting dialogue) weaken the feel of the novel and should be banished, although they are encountered every day in fiction. The following list of adjectives tells rather than shows the reader. Their meanings are broad and do not create a vivid impression. Such adjectives are:

Wonderful, lovely, pretty, stupid, foolish, pleasant, comely, horrid, and so forth.
Creative Writing Exercises

Less is often more when redundant, weak, lazy and broad-meaning adjectives sneak into the novel. The following steps might be worth following:

  • Cutting out as many adjectives as possible without harming the meaning of the passage.
  • Watch out for synonymous adjectives in a sentence.
  • Finding one adjective that covers the two or more used.
  • Seeking out a more original or incisive adjective.

An example of an adjective-ridden sentence can easily be improved by a little pruning. The following demonstrates how this can be done.

"Jess cleared the cluttered area around the small hole in the old, blackened floorboard with her sleeve. She lowered her head into the dusty gap. It smelled musty and horrid. Peeking through, she could picture her dark blue iris of her eye looking out."
Now try the following:

"Jess cleared the area around the hole in the floorboard. She lowered her head into the gap. Dust entered her nose, making her cough – not just any dust, but mildewy, probably someone’s skin cells from the seventies. Peeking through, she could picture her pinprick pupil looking out."

In the first example, the adjectives: cluttered, small, old, blackened, dusty, horrid, dark and blue do little to create a clearer picture for the reader and in fact hampers the pace of the action. The passage does not really miss them once omitted. In the second example, only two adjectives remain: mildewy and pinprick, both a little more dynamic and incisive.
Writing a Novel Advice

Like passive writing, too many adjectives in novel writing may leave the reader feeling uninvolved with the story. Often, an adjective-ridden narrative will leave it feeling flabby. In such cases, the thesaurus is invaluable. Such measures will make the story more compelling and streamlined for the reader.

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© Rachel Shirley