When Adjectives Collide

One of my two rules for writing fiction is, “Put the reader in the scene.” To do this, you need description. The question that never leaves the writer in peace is, “How much description is enough?”

Today in one of my Facebook writers’ groups an aspiring writer was wondering whether she needed to use last names when introducing characters, or whether the first name would be enough. I offered a somewhat generic but perhaps helpful answer. She then posted the excerpt below, commenting that she worried that adding last names would be too much in conjunction with the physical descriptions.

I’ve changed a few details of the passage, because my point here is not to insult the woman who wrote it but to provide an illustration that may help other writers. There are two or three things wrong with this passage. Let’s see if you can spot them.

“Are we all set?” Tom asks, looking to each member of his small staff. With confirmation from the three employees, Tom gathers them together at the bar top. “Thank you, guys, for the extra effort setting up tonight while I got the whiskey shipment straightened out.

“Sarah,” Tom addresses his server, a soft-spoken, petite woman. “I especially appreciate you coming in early to do some deep cleaning in the dining room.” Tom brushes a hand over the bar’s varnished surface and half chuckles, meeting her deep brown eyes. “I don’t think the place was this clean when I bought it. I know I said time and a half, but you earned double time instead.” Sarah flashes a rare, brief smile at Tom as the others pat her back.

“Be alert tonight,” Tom says, addressing everyone. “Those revolutionary agitators have been unusually quiet the past few weeks, so more than likely, they’re up to something. If you see anything out of place, let me or Steve know,” Tom motions to the burly bouncer, who smacks his chest twice with a firm hand, “and we’ll handle it.” Heads bob in agreement.

Tom turns to his bartender and only human employee. “Roger, let me know when we’re down to ten pounds of knackwurst, and I’ll 86 the Sausage Night menu.”

“Will do,” the tall man answers, saluting with two long, thin fingers. “Did we get the usual 30 pounds or did you up it to 50?”

Tom shakes his head. “I don’t know if I need to increase the order just yet. We’ve been running out not quite as close to closing time as usual, but I don’t want a lot of waste. I’m keeping an eye on it.” Roger gives a thumbs up.

The most obvious trait that weakens this passage is that it’s freighted down with adjectives. Small, soft-spoken, petite, deep brown, rare, brief, burly, firm, tall, long, thin. (We’ll leave “only human” out of the list, since it likely has some other function.) But I suspect this is only a symptom of a larger problem. If this is the first time the other three characters (Sarah the server, Steve the bouncer, and Roger the bartender) are being introduced to the reader, their description is too much and yet not nearly enough. The reader can have no idea who these people are. They’re flat. Colorless.

On the other hand, if this isn’t the beginning of the scene — if we’ve met these people before — mentioning Sarah’s eye color is deadly. Mentioning that Roger is tall is deadly. The reader should already know these facts if they’re important.

My strong recommendation is, if you’re going to need several characters in a scene, don’t introduce them all at once. Use a few hundred extra words — words don’t get used up, trust me on this; you can use them over and over — to introduce one character at a time. Give each of them some depth by giving them different speech patterns and behaviors. “Gives a thumbs up” is not a behavior by an actual character; it’s generic. The guy smacking his chest, yes, that’s good — I like that. But “burly” and “firm hand” kill it.

The third issue here, and I’m sure some readers will have noticed, if only subliminally, is that nothing is happening in this scene. The scene could be summarized in a couple of sentences. “Tom checked with his staff to make sure they were ready for the opening. He thanked Sarah for doing such a great job cleaning up, reminded them to be on the lookout for trouble, and made sure Roger had ordered enough knackwurst.” See? That’s all it is. There’s not a shred of conflict in this scene. The action is inert.

Another of my rules of thumb is, if you have two characters in a scene, it’s better if they disagree with one another than if they agree. You want friction. Their goals, at the very least, should be visible and should be different from one another. In the scene fragment above, everybody is totally on board with the boss’s plans for the evening. Even without the adjective overload, the scene would need to be rewritten. Summarized, possibly deleted, or injected with something more lively than embalming fluid.

This entry was posted in fiction, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to When Adjectives Collide

  1. This is a great analysis, and I truly enjoyed it. You should do more of these!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s