Adjectives and Adverbs — A Reptilian Ramble

© August 2014 Mary Crockford

I relish a good author quote, and two of my favorites are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” and William Faulkner’s “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” I’m fond of Hawthorne’s quote because, well, he was a genius with allegory and such a favorite author that I named my middle son after him. If Washington Irving’s name had not contained the names “Washington” and “Irving,” he may have made it into my name lexicon, too, but I wasn’t a fan of either of those, despite him being just as brilliant.
I appreciate Faulkner’s quote as well, because it’s a cleverly metaphorical acknowledgement of how hard it can be for a writer to be succinct and still effectively convey what is bursting to escape the confines of the heart and imagination. In part, he was referring to the tendency most of us have to use adjective after adjective, modified by adverb after adverb, nuanced by inflection after inflection because we think and feel so deeply about what we’re trying to say. Some writers manage succinctness to the point of perfection.  Ernest Hemingway in particular got away with very few words in his writings compared to many other authors, and ironically that is one of the reasons he’s not everyone’s favorite to read. But to say he wasn’t an effective writer would be preposterous, of course. It just so happened to work for him in a way that I don’t think would work for me, at least without making me break out in a brevity-induced case of hives. In “Hills like White Elephants” he packed so much information into so few words that the reader knows something of the story’s economic setting, weather, and lingua franca – and perhaps even one of Hemingway’s Freudian fixations – in the first smattering of dialogue:

“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat
and put it on the table.
“It’s pretty hot,” the man said. “Let’s drink beer.”
“Dos cervezas,” the man said into the curtain.
“Big ones?” a woman asked from the doorway.
“Yes, two big ones.”

So succinctness is powerful in the right hands, without question. I just lean a little bit in the other direction. I enjoy employing words, even piling them up a few at a time like contented little turtles, stacked one atop the other like they’re holding the planet up – and my narrative with it. But I also know too many turtles stacked that way will topple, causing that planet to wobble off its axis, or worse, collapse in a heap of, well, turtles. Toppling can be messy, and rarely do things that have toppled, including turtles, ever stack quite as neatly and willingly again. So a few carefully placed turtles occupy a space quite happily, a couple others just might have to wait patiently at the base of the column until the first set have had their time in the sun and let them move to the top.
Now, where was I? Right, adjectives, adverbs, too few, too many. Got it. Apparently too many turtles don’t just topple, they turn a topic into a terrific tangent! Tsk tsk!
It really is adjectives and adverbs, though, or rather the number of them, that can get me into trouble when I don’t rein them in. I live and breathe descriptions, details, it’s how I talk, not just how I write. I feel what I say, and constraint can make me feel like an Italian with his hands cut off, trying to emote on the sheer beauty of canoli to someone who’s maybe only ever eaten Twinkies. I can also lose track of how much time I have, and probably how much patience that Twinkie connoisseur might have for my passionate defense of the virtues of canoli.
So writing a short story can be like zip-tying my own wrists and locking myself in a steamer trunk, just so I don’t get hopelessly carried away. The drunken etymologist (see “verbose windbag”) in me would much rather say: “Edvard von Schmendrickson, son of the dastardly embezzler Ludvig von Schmendrickson, plodded switheredly as he traversed the sloughy landscape of the heath like Nelson’s Trafalgar slicing a trajectory through a gelatinous atmospheric stew,” than say, “Ed walked sadly through the storm, upset at his crooked dad.” I know there’s a happy middle ground, and I’ll err on the side of the flowery to find it, though a less-is-more approach is still gonna win for effectiveness just about every time, and I know that. To effectively narrate is one thing, but to induce migraines in one’s readers is quite another. I get it.
So my middle ground, that which would warm my literary cockles as it were, might be something like this:

“Edward felt the full shame of his father’s failures. His failures now, if
the townspeople had their way. Their glares and whispers across the fresh
graveside that morning had made that much clear. Raising the hood of his
thin cloak against the unforgiving wind and rain, Edward made his way
across the heath, letting the stubborn cold envelope and temporarily dull
his desperation.”

Something like that, some good literary porridge. You know, not too little, not too much. Descriptive, with just enough information to show the reader that Edward is carrying a heavy emotional weight, connected to a negative family legacy, and must somehow overcome aspects of setting and psychology to redeem himself. I could still cut some of that out, and get straight to the narrative punch, but them there’s some really happy turtles, and to remove too many would be more an exercise in proving I could do something than it actually being the moral thing to do.
So my turtles will probably stay where they are, happily paired off, with the occasional third or fourth wheel (wingturtles?) rounding things out in case the first two decide not to share their “dos cervezas” and play nice. But that definitely doesn’t prevent me from appreciating and admiring writers who do manage to hold their planets — and their narratives — up with fewer turtles, and to be eminently successful (sorry!) doing so.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “”Hills Like White Elephants” Hypertext.” Virginia Commonwealth University, n.d. Web.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “A Quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Goodreads. Goodreads, Inc.,
n.d. Web.
Faulkner, William. “A Quote by William Faulkner.” Goodreads. Goodreads, Inc., n.d. Web.

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