Part of what sets a scene in fiction is descriptive writing. Painting a picture of what the reader can see, hear, smell, touch and even taste will draw them into the story and make them really feel they are ‘in’ the novel.
Today I want to show you how it’s possible to do this without using any adjectives at all.
Now don’t get me wrong, adjectives are great. We should always use them in our writing to describe what is going on in the scene and to enhance the reader’s investment in the story. But it is very easy to go too far, smothering our writing with fancy adjectives when sometimes less is more. Consider the quote below from American short story writer George Saunders:
“I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.”
It’s a bit extreme, but it’s a good exercise. Take a section of your writing now and go through it, crossing out all of the adjectives, and see what happens. Maybe it now feels a bit plain. Or maybe it has improved. It pays to take time to consider whether you should use an adjective or another way of describing the scene instead. Take the example below:
Arthur leaned towards her, his leathery skin brushing her youthful face. His narrow eyes were full of intense hatred, and she could feel them scrutinizing her even features.
What if we replaced it with:
Arthur leaned towards her, his skin brushing her face. His eyes were full of hatred, and she could feel them scrutinizing her features.
By taking out the adjectives, not only have we not lost any of the atmosphere, but we’ve actually improved the style! Better still would be if we went one step further and replaced the adjectives with descriptive action.
I’ll leave you to have a go at that sentence yourself, but I want to show you how bestselling author Judith Kerr did it in her novel Bombing Aunt Dainty. In the passage below there are only two adjectives: ‘faint’ and ‘close’, and yet I am sure I am not alone in being able to imagine the scene very easily:
The old lady emitted a faint snore. There was a bit of fluff on her dress quite close to her mouth and every time she breathed it moved very slightly. For a while Anna watched it in the hope that something might happen – the old lady might swallow it or sneeze or something – but nothing did.
By describing what is happening in micro – in this instance a bit of fluff being lifted by someone’s breath – Kerr lets us into the ‘aura’ of the scene in macro. Even without knowing anything else about the novel, we can immediately feel Anna’s boredom in the presence of older people and the unbearable silence of the house. If she had used flowery adjectives such as ‘hushed’ or ‘muffled’ or ‘monotonous’, the effect would have been lost.
Now see if you can write a highly descriptive sentence using no adjectives at all. Not a single one. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.