Generic Adjectives are Bad for your Style

What’s wrong with this fragment, found in a novel:

‘Their conversation was stilted’?

That’s right: it tells, it doesn’t show. Instead of creating a scene with the right atmosphere to show us that the awkwardness, boredom and self-consciousness of the characters involved in this conversation, the author chooses to summarise it all with a generic adjective: stilted.

For fiction, this is as good a report-writing. Imagine you were a witness of this conversation and you had to write a report about it. You would write a summary of it and you would use generic adjectives. They looked uncomfortable to be there, their conversation was stilted. You wouldn’t desciebe the scene, you’ll be unlikely to repeat their dialogue lines, the look in their eyes, the subtle gestures and facial expressions. But in fiction, it is exactly this kind of minimalism that creates atmospheric and immersive scenes to enrich our reading experience, not the report-writing.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use this beauitful fragment from Edgar A. Poe: “The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once golden hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with ringlets now black as the raven’s wing, and jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and I shrunk involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips.” Here, Poe could have easily summarised it all with ‘Berenice looked ill’, but of course, he didn’t. He offered us instead a piece of real description and allowed us the opportunity to interact with his writing and understand the meaning of it, that she indeed looked ill.

Other generic adjectives to look out for and pluck out of your fiction writing, are ‘bad’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘gloomy’, ‘angry’, ‘delighted’, ‘elated’, ‘amused’ and so on. The best way to go about it is to schedule one editing session with generic adjectives in mind and go through the whole manuscript isolating them one by one and deciding whether a proper scene or description would be suitable instead.

For more on showing, not telling and how to avoid summarising in fiction, check out Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.

About Lorena Goldsmith

Literary consultant at Daniel Goldsmith Associates.
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