As you know, fantasy is one of my favorite genres to read and to write. I love to imagine fabled creatures, unearthly beings, secret worlds, and magic. I’ve discovered that one of my favorite tropes is shape-shifting – transforming one thing or being into another. A man into a hawk. A dragon into a dragonfly.
Shape-shifting doesn’t just happen in fantasy though. In the real world, ice changes into water and then into steam. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly. A tadpole turns into a frog. A seed into a tree, a bloom, an apple, and more seeds. And maybe for me, in the bigger picture, shape-shifting is a metaphor for the changes that take place within us as we journey through life.
We writers shape-shift phrases and sentences all the time, and one source of that magic is the adjective. We use adjectives to transform nouns, to paint pictures, to focus the reader’s senses. It’s not just a smell but a sharp smell, or an acrid smell, or a rancid smell, or a spicy smell. It’s not just the sky but the pewter sky, the sunset red sky, the dawn pink sky. Not just the river but the rushing river, the lazy river, the swirling river. Not just the voice but the faint voice, the harsh voice, the garbled voice. The adjective performs the magic, changes the picture, transforms the color, sharpens or dulls the smell.
The specific adjective can make a story ring with reality or fold it into the realm of fantasy.
Tolkein in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” found in the appendix to Tales from the Perilous Realm, wrote, “[H]ow powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. . . . We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”
There are editors and writers who warn against using adjectives (and adverbs as well), and for good reason. Inexperienced writers often rely too heavily on adjectives and adverbs when a more colorful noun or verb would make the writing more interesting and concise and would paint a clearer picture. The swirling river could be described more effectively as a maelstrom. The faint voice is perhaps better written as simply a whisper. Neither is wrong, but the wise writer goes for the noun or verb that carries the most weight and doesn’t need a qualifier.
Still, used sparingly and with intention, adjectives (and adverbs) perform magic, allowing us to shape-shift the generic into the specific, the usual into the unique, and sometimes the common into the fantastic.
Do the writers you enjoy reading use adjectives liberally or sparingly? For fun, describe an object with all the adjectives you can think of, then go back and see if you can think of a better, more descriptive noun for the object.
Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.