It’s advice that writers hear time and time again – kill your adjectives. But why? What have adjectives ever done to us that they don’t deserve a place in our stories?
Of course there is a place for a select few adjectives in stories, but all too often adjectives are committing the writerly sin of telling instead of showing. An adjective tells the reader how to interpret a situation, instead of showing the reader what’s happening and letting the reader do the interpreting. Have a read of these sentences:
“The character feels angry.”
“The character looks happy.”
The adjectives ‘angry’ and ‘happy’ are telling the reader how we’re supposed to perceive the state of mind of the character we’re reading about. They don’t show how those emotions actually play out for the characters in the moment.
Think about it: how do you experience the emotion of anger? Your heart might beat faster, your hands might instinctively ball into fists, and your mind might go a bit cloudy, because it’s hard to think straight when you’re angry. And how do you know when someone is happy? It’s because they’re smiling or laughing, or maybe their eyes are just a bit brighter than usual and their shoulders relaxed. In real life, these are the kinds of things we feel or observe, and then we interpret them: ‘I feel angry’ or ‘they look happy’.
Adjectives bypass this process of feeling, observation and interpretation. They jump straight into giving the reader a ready-made interpretation.
Why does this matter? The reason why showing is so important in fiction is because showing allows the reader to experience the story in the same way they experience reality – and this is what helps bring the story to life.
So next time your character is angry, or happy, or anything else you’re tempted to describe with an adjective – try taking a step back and describing instead the very specific things that make up your character’s experience in that moment. Let your character slam the door or let out a giggle, and leave it to the reader to interpret what’s going on with them.