Sometimes Lavender, Sometimes Purple: A Love Affair With Adjectives and Adverbs

While many of you are aware of “copywriting boobos”, I tend to be more aware of descriptive information. I want it to seep into my subconscious setting the scene, showing me the action but not be a part of the story. I think of adjectives and adverbs as the structure or foundation of a novel. You know that it there and it makes an impression but it doesn’t scream out at you.

I am not saying that stark and unadorned writing doesn’t have its place, but adjectives and adverbs are wonderful things when used correctly. They take you from, “See Leigh run,” to “See exhausted but unwavering Leigh stagger wheezily to the finish line.” They change a simple black and white thought by adding vibrant color to it(albeit sometimes purple color), and crafting an image that comes alive in our mind. And having stories come alive is of critical importance.

If you wonder about that, just go to our PowerSearch and click on D reviews or lower. You will discover that the use of language plays a big part in ratings. Some authors are excellent wordsmiths and some are not. In doing research for this piece, I even discovered that there is a published book for romance authors called The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book. Do take a moment and search within the book. No wonder so much of the descriptive information about heroines and heroes seems repetitive after a while. Although luckily for us, most authors have moved away from “manroot”, “sword of flesh”, “male nectar”, “purple tulip”, or “honey pot.” Of course we can all find sex scenes that are purple-prosed and laughable. I just finished a book where the author stated “her nipples poked against his chest. Like the rest of her they were small and fierce”. Without getting too personal, I can say with certainty that no parts of my girls have ever been fierce. And surprisingly this is not that uncommon. Check out an older piece here at AAR called Encyclopedia of Silly Sex. Nipples there “stabbed through the fabric like gold-embossed invitation.”

The way an author expresses herself on paper creates her own style or voice. I know that if I posted uncited paragraphs from popular authors, many readers would immediately be able to guess the correct creator. And like anything, some of it boils down to personal likes or dislikes. Some readers like flowery, some like unembellished. Depending on her voice, the way an author writes pulls you into the story or if the way she expresses herself jerks you out of it.

I am not big on creative use of words or inventive descriptions. In fact more often than not, when an author tries too hard to be unique, to set the book apart, I tend to have a problem with it. It appears artificial or like a miserably bad thesaurus glitch. And it is not limited to new authors or unskilled authors either because I have run into this even in books by legendary author Nora Roberts. I am obviously in the minority on it because her books continue to make the bestseller lists again and again. I can’t really pinpoint when I first noticed it or it first started bothering me but I remember thinking the introduction to Midnight Bayou was overwrought. It starts out “Death, with all its cruel beauty, lived in the bayou. Its shadows ran deep. Cloaked by them, a whisper in the marsh grass or rushes, in the tangled trap of the kudzu, meant life, or fresh death. Its breath was thick and green, and its eyes gleamed yellow in the dark.” Immediately I started thinking of all those bad Halloween movies. The opening of Chasing Fire starts out with “Caught in the crosshairs of wind above the Bitterroots, the jump ship fought to find its steam.’ Of course she’s talking about a plane, but you can’t tell it from the first sentence.

Elmore Leonard wrote an article giving advice to new authors. He quoted an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” which sums up my article in one paragraph. A character in that book states “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

In romanceland, I don’t mind a written depiction of the heroine or hero. In fact I have been known to backtrack trying to discover eye color. However, I don’t want pages and pages describing the heroine gorgeous attributes or the hero’s six pack abs. And yes, I want talk in a book. I do want to figure out what he is like from his thoughts and actions. And like the character states, “hooptedoodle” is okay but let me skim over it if I want to do so.

How about you? Are there certain authors that style of writing pulls you into the story or out? Do you want the adjectives and adverbs to be more out there or barely register on your consciousness? Just how much hooptedoodle do you like in your stories?

– Leigh Davis

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