Monday, September 3, 2018

Dirty Modifiers


The author James Baldwin once said, “Write a sentence as clean as a bone.” The thing that really draws me to that quote is how it is an example of its intention – those eight words present a case without any meat or gristle hanging off, with nothing but its core intention. It is simple, visual, and to the point.

And then we start throwing around adjectives and adverbs.

Ugly modifiers -- not pretty to look at
To be fair, nothing is wrong with descriptors. They are effective tools to enhance the narrative, especially when the bone we write about is not meant to be clean. We can add a level of depth to the things we describe, and nuance the actions we discuss. However, the real trick is knowing when the extra words add value versus when they cheapen the writing. Bad extra words are like a picture with clashing colors -- more color but less image. We will start with these, and some simple words that might sound beneficial but offer little literary nourishment.

Here's an opening sentence for an action story: “The downtown bus suddenly exploded, without warning, in the middle of rush-hour traffic.” One explosion and we are into the story – no question about it. However, there is some cheapness that makes this writing sensational but not very informative. Can you see it?

It’s not obvious at first, but think about it. How many explosions are not sudden? Is “suddenly” really even necessary there? If that word was left out, would the reader wonder if this was a sudden explosion or one of those slow, drawn-out explosions we hear about? And let’s be fair – most explosions in rush-hour traffic happen “without warning.” It would be far more interesting if this explosion happened “as expected,” but that is not what the reader would assume.

These are examples of flabby words that overdramatize the event, sometimes at the expense of the actual story. It is not necessarily wrong to include these, but it can misdirect focus. This emphasis would be similar to an action movie where an explosion is shown from four different angles, twice in slow-motion, and the final display with the main character walking away from the carnage. Sure, it’s fun cinema, but in our story, maybe the descriptive emphasis should be on the impact it has on rush-hour traffic. An explosion is a couple seconds of stimulation, but the tragedy outside will carry on for many more pages than the explosion itself ever could.

It is not a cardinal sin to use terms like “suddenly,” but the best investment is to use them where they have the most impact. Would “suddenly” be more effective if it was replaced by “unexpectedly?” I always offer a simple analogy to explain the difference – when my father died, the real tragedy wasn’t that he died suddenly; it was that he died unexpectedly. The difference in that one word brings out an entirely different meaning.

This leads us to a broader category of Dirty Modifiers – the obvious. As the saying goes, there are three horrible sins in writing: Repetition, redundancy, and repeating things over and over and over and over. And with this we have the obvious modifiers. “She quickly ran down the road,” “He shouted loudly at his friends,” and “The tall giant” are all examples of the obvious. A reader will assume that someone runs quickly, shouts loudly, or that a giant is tall, so there is no need for those modifiers. We should only use modifiers in those cases if value can be added from adding something. “She ran down the road like a runaway beer truck,” would demonstrate something more than just running, and contribute to the mood. Using quickly doesn’t do anything more than remind us what running is – in case we forgot.

And this brings us to a couple of troublemakers – “really” and “very.” These are cheap descriptors that try to make something more impressive but only show a lack of vocabulary. If it doesn’t feel right to say something is big, saying it is really big or very big is a cheap way to go. Huge, enormous, gargantuan and colossal will also work, and they can contribute to the mood as well. And let’s not forget using metaphors and similes to add to the voice and tone of the writing. Example: “The house on the corner was big.” To emphasize just how big, instead of “very big” or “really big,” try, “The house on the corner was big enough to fit my house in its front room.” Problem solved. No flabby words, and a satisfying explanation to the whole size of the house matter.

And on that note, the next post will be about the words that give the most mileage to your writing, and how the right ones can win over an entire scene.

(Apologies to Douglas Adams. His description of the universe as “…big. Really big,” is absolutely brilliant, as it speaks to his refined writing voice.)

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