Excessive modifier use often comes up when an author is trying really hard to “show not tell” but leans a little too far in the other direction. They try to paint a picture, and sometimes, we get a little too much paint on the canvas. The problem with stacking adjectives and using too many adverbs is that they each lose a little impact for being surrounded by other descriptors. I go back to the spice analogy, a little salt goes a long way.
One of the things that often stands out right away in new writers’ work is over using adjectives.
I suspect this comes from an overreaction to “show don’t tell,” but I could very well be wrong. The author wants to paint a picture for the reader, absolutely, but like most things, using too many descriptive words lessens the impact of all of them. A few well chosen and intentionally selected adjectives will give the descriptions the author chooses to showcase a lot more power.
The blue sky stretched above the luscious, green hills. White, puffy clouds marked dark shadows in the brilliant grass.
The blue sky stretched above the hills. Clouds marked dark shadows in the grass.
Sentence one is overplayed. Every noun in the sentence has a modifying adjective. Clouds has two. Nothing stands out as important because everything is treated equally. In the second passage, I have made choices. Arbitrary ones, yes. Depending on what the author wanted to stress, they could have kept different adjectives. I chose to keep blue for sky and dark for shadows to make the contrast between the light and dark. I had a story in mind that might follow that theme, but any decision would have been correct so long as it tightened, and selected with INTENT. What do I want to stress? What items in the scene are important? Spend your adjectives on those nouns and let the rest just be clouds and hills and grass.
Big, ruddy red spots dotted her plum, round cheeks. Her sparkling, sea blue eyes shone back from a soft, beautiful face.
Ruddy spots dotted her cheeks. Her blue eyes shone back from the face I loved.
Stacking adjectives can sound immature. This is rarely how adults speak, so it shouldn’t be how they write. You lose reader credibility when you stack. When a child says something is very, very, very, very, important, we have a natural instinct to dismiss most of those very’s. I kept ruddy because it’s unique, blue eyes for simplicity and on the facial description I killed all the adjectives and went with a verb—loved–which tells me more than enough and also lends the description an active slant instead of chaining it to passive writing.
Mark Twain reportedly said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.” Now, I’m not certain if that’s a myth or fact, so don’t quote me, but the advice is solid just the same. Adverbs can weaken your verbs—almost always.
Adverbs are a little bit like that “very, very, very.” They smack of trying to convince the reader of something. Strong writers lead the reader to a conclusion without being obvious. Adverbs are a lot like stating the obvious.
Adverbs also allow an author to be lazy. I can tell you that she walked slowly, or I can struggle a minute for the right verb, and say she sauntered, or stalked or what have you. Adverbs let us get away with using the same old verbs over and over…and so whenever possible, we should try to kill them like the [dog-less traitors] they are.
She walked slowly around the edge of the room, gently touching the wall with one hand and talking softly to herself.
She drifted around the edge of the room, brushing the wall with one hand and whispering.
Now in sentence one you can see what’s happening, yes, but the author has taken the easy way out. It’s not a bad sentence, all in all. It’s not technically “wrong.” But, the second one is stronger. The image of the woman is clearer and her actions more haunting. Tight almost always equals more impact on the reader.
I laughed loudly and abruptly set down the book.
I barked a laugh and slammed down the book.
Stronger verbs, more active prose, and a clearer picture. Adverbs are generic. Make your prose specific and unique by doing the work and writing tight.