Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas and the Gift of Modifiers

As we enter the holiday season, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

More to the point, I want to explain as a writer why I want your Christmas to be Merry and your Holidays to be Happy, as my words suggest.

Merry and Happy are modifiers; in this instance, adjectives that modify a noun. We use them all the time and usually fall back on the safe ones. If I wish you all a Regal Christmas and a Ravenous Holidays, the modifiers might distract you even though I still wish you these things. Even something like a Joyous Christmas might not sound right, because recipients have very specific expectations -- Christmases shall be known as being Merry and/or White, and any other modifier stands out. Bing Crosby literally demanded it by singing, "And may all your Christmases be white." All of them. Every one. No exceptions. 

Well, sorry, Bing. Writers have that obligation to mix it up. Any written material will be filled with traditional modifiers -- blue skies and dark eyes, stormy nights and scary frights; all the lingua franca of writers. However, a writer really helps their craft when they can bring out modifiers that change the mood and bring a novel idea to the sentence. 

There is a fun little exercise to work on modifiers, based on the old-fashioned party game, The Minister's Cat. Fortunately, a writer can do these without needing a party. It's a pretty simple thing, and with a lot of practice, it develops the writer's ability to break away from expectations and create memorable sentences.

It goes like this: Take a simple sentence describing a person or a behavior, and leave the descriptor blank.
  • I am a _____ driver. (the modifier is an adjective)
  • I drive very _____. (the modifier is an adverb)

Now think of the easy adjectives -- good, careful, fast, bad, experienced, etc. -- and get those out of your system. Do the same for the easy driving adverbs -- well, carefully, quickly, poorly, etc.

Now start throwing different adjectives in, particularly ones better used for things like food, sports, hobbies, art, etc. -- the further from driving, the better. Think about the ways that you describe your soup or a painting could describe your driving. Could you be a zesty driver? Fast and memorable, always capturing the attention of everyone around you? Could you drive very poetically? Each move and technique well-thought out and scripted with a rhythm-and-flow that not everyone can understand or appreciate?


(Personally, my driving is salty and I drive inquisitively. Does that tell you about my driving or about me? Would you want to be the car behind me or the one in front of me?)

As you learn to flex your adjectives and adverbs, they do more than add to the description, they tell a story. If an artist character begins describing his moods not with emotions but with colors and shading, we see how that character acknowledges the world. Someone replete with loving, affectionate descriptors -- even as negative ones -- creates a very empathetic world about them. Think of a character who who describes friendships, relationships, and love with calculated, mathematical terms. You might know more about that person from those odd descriptions than by their simple actions.

Do this exercise periodically, assigning weird words to simple tasks and see what they become. .The more you do this, the easier it will become, and the more open you become with using your whole palette of words to bring out the details in your characters and writing.

But for next few days, enjoy your holidays. Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and enjoy the love and friendship of those around you (you can write about them later).



(I will also be enjoying a few things myself, so there will not be a post on December 24th. The next scheduled post will be on the 28th, as I prepare for New Year's Eve.)

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