Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

How to NOT Cut Adjectives

It's an oft-cited Rule of Writing that adjectives are bad, that overuse will lead to a godawful purpling of one's prose. Who needs an adjective when the right noun will do? Aren't these (along with adverbs) pretty much the most-often redundant part of speech? Cut them! we cry. Take a cut-throat razor and flense that fat from the bloated corpse of your dead and rotting prose! And this is not entirely bad advice, not by any means.

Being a thrawn cocksucker, however, and a cocksure motherfucker whose grave shall read, "Fuck that shit!" I thought I'd smack that advice upside its vapid little head with a baseball bat, dump this petty axiom of the mediocre out a top floor window and offer you a completely contrary lesson. Yeah, that's right. Today's lesson in the craft of writing is how to not cut adjectives. Let's take a random example of adjective overuse, sourced from some corner of the interwebs:

"Stepping out into the bright sunshine amidst the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

Now if we were to prune this ruthlessly of all the adjectives, what we'd get is this:

"Stepping out into the sunshine amidst the singing of the birds, she sensed a stirring in her spirit that left her open to the excitement of the challenge that lay ahead of her."

Yeah, whatever. It's not as overwrought as the original, but it's hardly deathless prose. I say we can fix that sentence a whole lot better, and I say we can do so without lowering the adjective count by a single word. Surely it can't be done! I hear you say, There's fricking five adjectives in there! Surely some of them just gotta go!

Pfft! says I. Piece of piss.

Let's start by applying the first principle of decent prose: clarity. Is the sunshine "amidst" the birdsong? Can light be physically "amidst" sound? Does that even make sense? Don't be silly, you say. It's her that's "amidst" the sound. As she steps out? I say. Surely she's stepping out into the birdsong just as much as she's stepping out into the sunshine, entering them both at the exact same point. The birdsong isn't swirling around her such that it follows her out the fucking door. So:

"Stepping out into the bright sunshine and the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

But, wait! Let's apply economy too! Why are we calling it "singing of the birds" when there's the perfectly good "birdsong," as I just referred to it above? So:

"Stepping out into the bright sunshine and the delicate birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

Not that much better yet, eh? But, look! Now there's a logical pairing of sight and sound, a parallel emphasised by the compound construction of "sun-shine" and "bird-song," which makes it a logical balance to have the second adjective.

Still, they're both redundant. When is sunshine not bright? When is birdsong not delicate? (The cawing of crows or gulls is not song. Song is musical. If we're talking birdsong, we're talking canaries, nightingales and other such ickle tweety-birds.) To be purposeful, the adjectives here must conjure the additional import of the object in the narrative, what it is about them that makes these instances distinct. Here, it's clearly as much the affective experience of the ephemera, the degree to which and the way in which they impact on the character as she steps out into them. The right adjectives could conjure that and not be redundant:

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

While we're at it though, we might as well change that "brave." A challenge isn't brave; the person that responds to it is. If they have to be brave to respond to it, that means it's formidable:

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

OK, so where were we? Well, now it's only the second half of the sentence that goes purple. With the first half tightened, we can just about accept "passionate stirring," but when we hit "mysterious excitement," we throw up a little in our mouths, right? But we don't have quite the same redundancy in that vomit-point pairing. Not all excitement involves a sense of mystery. It's only when we have a sense of mystery together with a sense of excitement that... oh, wait.

Hang on.

What we're trying to conjure here is a composite affect, right? It's an affect with two dimensions, so the writer has picked one and shaded it with the other. But is the character open to the "mysterious excitement" or to the "exciting mystery"? Do those flipped phrasings really signify anything different, I mean? Cause if we have two affects, and one is not essentially a subordinate quality of the other, if their relationship could be flipped, then we can just have her open to both, duh. I'm going to apply the principle of specificity here though, cause the reason an adjective has been slapped on "excitement" is that "excitement" is a bit generic in and of itself. Since we want something as precise as mystery to pair with it, I'm going to switch excitiment to "thrill":

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

So, now we have actually removed one adjective, by turning it back into the noun it's derived from. (Don't worry. It ain't over yet.) Still, even doing that, while I no longer gag at that point in the sentence, that "passionate stirring" remains... a bit bothersome. Again, it feels a bit redundant. If you sense a stirring in your spirit, that's obviously a matter of affect, of passion. If you're stirred, then said passion is by definition elevated, you are by definition feeling passionate. But you know what? I'm not going to cut that, because clearly the idea is to drive home just how stirred she is. In fact, I'm going to add an adjective. That's right, motherfuckers, add. Hey, we cut one, and the game here is to fix the sentence without just pruning modifiers, so to take us back up to the original total, I'm going to bring back one that got lost along the way--"brave."

I'm not just going to tack it on to a noun though. Fuck that shit. I'm going to show how the adjective need not be bound to the heteropartist orthodoxy in which it must always be paired with a noun, married to a different part of speech, subjugated, enslaved. Let our two little adjectives bond together in a same-part marriage, strike out together, proud and dauntless, passionate and brave!

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate and brave, that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

You want to cut things from this sentence? Three "X and Y" pairings in one sentence is a bit much, so let's make those adjectives snuggle even tighter, make them even more fierce, even more in-yer-face. Adjective Rights, motherfucker! Let's go for the bam! bam! effect of conjunction elision.

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

Might as well prune a couple of other redundancies while we're at it. Let's bring the first pair a little closer together by dropping the second "the," and let's tighten up the last phrasing by dropping "that lay" and "of her":

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge ahead."

Actually, fuck it, who needs the first "the"? And if it's the unknown potentials of the challenge that are getting her all excited, is it really a singular mystery, a singular thrill, or is it a fabulous, formless plethora of possibilities we're dealing with? So:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

And hey presto! We have a perfectly usable sentence that's shorter by some half dozen words, but with no fewer adjectives than we began with. Is it still a bit precious? Sure, but it's articulating a moment of rapture; what do you expect? The point is, the lyricism required to conjure the moment is not achieved simply by slapping an emotional button-pushing adjective onto every noun, painting everything: bright; delicate; passionate; mysterious; brave. (Puke.) In the original, this trowelling-on of vapid effusiveness only gives us prose that's crude, saccharine and false. But is the fault overuse of adjectives or simply misuse? The right choice of five adjectives and the right placement for them, and you can piss on the shallow piffle of bush-league gurus churning out the same trite mantras over and over again: don't overuse adjectives; don't overuse adjectives; don't overuzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yawn.

This is pedestrian bollocks:

"Stepping out into the sunshine amidst the singing of the birds, she sensed a stirring in her spirit that left her open to the excitement of the challenge that lay ahead of her."

This is actual narrative prose:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

And I tell you what... I could add a sixth adjective in there and it would still work--work better arguably. Yeah, you heard me, baby, brazen in my braggadocio. One hundred internets if you can guess what and where, answers in the comments below, prize to whoever gets closest.

Come on, motherfuckers. Show me your adjectival audacity.

Bring it on.

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43 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was brilliant. I'm trying to write my first story and I'm struggling with sentence structures.

I was told (not long ago) that I use too many adjectives.

After reading this, I can tell my critic to fuck off.

9:30 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Don't be too quick off the mark at that though, especially if it's your first story.

Bear in mind that the adjective slather, to coin a term, in the original is what makes many (if not most) jump to a superficial "cut the adjectives!" solution. If they're saying overuse, they may be picking up on misuse that needs to be dealt with.

Feedback doesn't always give the right advice, but it often identifies a problem you don't want to just dismiss.

For what it's worth.

4:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I'll keep that in mind.

I sincerely appreciate your response.

BTW, great blog.

4:25 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cheers. :)

There's a bunch of writing advice under the Learn > Writing 101 menu option, btw, if it's of any use to you.

4:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I'll take any help I can get. :-)

Writing is a Hell of a lot harder than I thought. I'm a tech monkey, so crunching numbers is easy...... staring at a blank xterm window trying to be brilliant and clever, well, that's damn hard. Especially when your a dork. LOL!

Cheers,

4:44 pm  
OpenID alanlatic said...

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a BALLWRENCHING stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

Adjectives rock!

4:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I can see two spots for additional adjective cramming: there's one for BALLWRENCHING (thanks Alan) and one before "stepping".

Perhaps she stepped joyfully. Or swiftly, if we wanted to be literal.

Nice post though. I began by asking myself, 'who is this guy and why does he curse so often?' but by the time I was half way through I was giggling girlishly.

5:00 pm  
Blogger Kameron Hurley said...

Let's be real. Most writers are get told to write "clear prose" that sounds like:

"She stepped outside into the sunshine and bird song. She felt uplifted at the challenge ahead."

Anything more complex is "confusing." (!!)

5:01 pm  
Anonymous Cameron Johnston said...

I'll plump for a bit of voice adjectivication here:

"Stepping out into bloody glorious sunshine..."

5:24 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Alan: Heh. Imma award you 33.333r internets for that because there are only two steps required to get to where I'm thinking. Three if one decides to modify punctuation, but that's not essential and I'm feeling generous, so I'll count it as a thirdway there rather than a quarterway.

Richard: "Who is this guy and why does he curse so often?" A question many have asked! :D

Kameron: A pox on those champions of banality! That's like telling a stage magician not to be "too showy" with their tricks, or telling a choreographer not to make their dance moves "too complex."

5:27 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cameron: Much as I'm all for a bit of voice, and the more sweary the better, in this context that would be an intensifier modifying the adjective itself, with an import of "extremely" rather than "blood-drenched." I believe, in fact, those are normally classed as adverbs, since it's specifying additional detail about how the sunshine is carrying out the action of being glorious: it's doing it thoroughly, effectively, to a great extent, with a high impact.

5:46 pm  
Blogger kalendarut_ska4a said...

"Stepping out into glorious golden sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

What if we add alliteration? Obviously, glorious and golden form close sensory associations, and, in this case, wouldn't it produce a nice sturdy bang?

3:52 am  
Blogger kalendarut_ska4a said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:17 am  
Blogger kalendarut_ska4a said...

But, if you want to keep the parallel at the beginning, I guess an adjective could be placed before spirit. I was thinking of smouldering, only because it comes to mind so easily, but that would mean her spirit was lit before the stirring.

4:38 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hmmm. While "glorious golden sunshine" is a nice phrase in and of itself, what other colour is glorious sunshine going to be than golden? Arguably redundant. I considered "golden" as a replacement for "bright," actually, but decided that "glorious" would conjure that indirectly while sitting better in a duality with "tender."

More to the point, I'm inclined to think that breaking the symmetry undoes the balance which makes an adjective for "birdsong" logical. Losing the structural binding of ((glorious sunshine) and (tender birdsong)), we risk ending up with a sense of overload in that first section again. It's arguable, but I think to use "glorious golden sunshine, we'd want to lose "tender," which would take us back down to the same total.

Admittedly, rhythm may be a factor in my judgement here. The cadence of "Stepping out into glorious golden" builds a tension which "sunshine and birdsong" resolves smoothly where "sunshine and tender birdsong" stumbles. A dactyl rather than a trochee might resolve that though. One might bring back "delicate" for this.

"Stepping out into glorious golden sunshine and delicate birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

For my taste, that's overloaded though. I'd prefer the simpler:

"Stepping out into glorious golden sunshine and birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

At the end of the day though, Imma stick with the existing variant, for the tension in there, the contrast between the intensity of "glorious" and the subtlety of "tender," as a conjuring of the essential paradox/duality of the elation being conjured, the sense of the *exquisite*, if you catch my drift.

7:05 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

A great piece of advice on decoupling adjectives from the noun they modify; actually, it's more common in Slavic languages than in English so it doesn't sound that counterintuitive to someone like me, but I think English-language prose could do with a little bit more of it, especially for epiphanic (that a word?) passages.
I love Joyce's adjectival triplets in Ulysses so that whole post was right on point for me. Thanks, Hal :)

By the way, another way to not neglect adjectives would be to think of a knight-move sort of use for them, a sudden turn of meaning, but without overly highlighting it. I remember a poem I read somewhere, that had at some point a rich man in an orphanage giving away dolls to children, and the poem spoke of "glass-eyed charity".

I thought it was clever not only because of the double meaning, but because up to then the scene was a tad mawkish, Victorian-Little-Nell-ish of sorts, and the adjective introduced an undermining current that one could juust miss, a sort of disaffected muttering amidst the other phrases.


As to adjectival audacity, here's a sugar-bomb from me:

"My hands shivered under the blanket and a mist-filled memory came over me, of cold and clear-eyed mornings on a park bench, green and chipped and sodden, as I watched with rain-specked trousers how the rain pecked wetly at my polished shoes and plopped concentric kisses on the smooth cold cheeks of puddles where chestnuts had tumbled, marooned all around me beneath the crumbling shadows of shriveled autumn crowns."

7:10 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Adding an adjective before "spirit," meanwhile, would come too soon on the heels of "glorious sunshine" and "tender birdsong." We'd only end up again with that sense of adjective slather.

I mean, sure, we could theoretically add adjectives before any of the nouns that don't have them right now--stirring, spirit, mysteries, thrills--but that's the off-the-shelf technique that goes so horribly wrong in the original. You'll need to think sneakier than that if you want to win the 100 internets.

7:25 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

E.T.: Heh. Sweet. :)

7:31 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Actually, I said on Twitter I was going to give a clue if no one was close by the end of the day, but E.T.'s comment might well stand as that clue. Read it, think about it, and the path should become clear, grasshopper(s).

And I can't say any more without *giving* it away.

7:39 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

And while I'm still thinking on your challenge, since we're faffing about, I kinda went to town on the example all by myself.

"Out, out into cold glorious sunshine; and with tender birdsong, waking wings fluttering, came a stir in her spirit and left, with her wide-armed to the harsh challenge ahead, its sharp thrills, its mysteries to brave, passionate, uncaring blind.”

I'm actually getting carried away like that not too rarely and I'm not sure if there are guidelines as to how to rein it in a bit, any advice, Hal? (Since I'm having the feeling I do need to rein it in.)

8:02 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

I'm rereading my first comment, thinking what the hell my clue is (:D)... Hm, could it be both an adjectival triplet and a knight-move in the vicinity of "passionate and brave"?

Seeing as how there's this thing in Wikipedia (and in the real world I guess) called The Rule of Three, but three adjectives, identical in terms of import, would sound dull, wouldn't they? I've tried something like that in my last example, right at the end, and I think it's a neat trick (not saying my use of it is neat, it's just neat in general).

8:17 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Advice? Well, I'd switch "fluttering" to "aflutter" for rhythm, and to avoid duplicating the "-ing." I'd switch "her wide-armed" to "herself wide-armed" so we're not expecting "her wide-armed [noun,]" and for the full-on Joycean Irishness--cause why not?. A two syllable word for "harsh" would sit better in the cadences. And I'd be inclined to add "all" before "passionate" so the reader's not wrong-footed by the "adjective, adjective..." structure. And there's a missing comma in the adjectival...

Oh, wait. You were talking about *reining it in*, right?

Feh, if yer gonna go Joycean, it's in for a penny, in for a pound, I say!

8:28 am  
Blogger Larry Nolen said...

I wonder what will happen if we mess with the gerunds present:

"As she stepped into the golden autumn sunshine, birdsong trilling around her, her passionate spirit stirred, leaving her open to the wondrous, mysterious excitement of the brave (daunting?) challenge that lay before her."

I'm inclined to use dependent clauses to set up the internal action, but tastes do vary. Now if epic metaphors were permitted here, I suspect it could go much further...and piss off the "invisible prose" crowd...

8:33 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oooh, you're not just getting warmer; you're positively toasty.

If you *were* to be turning "... passionate, brave..." into a triplet, any thoughts on where you'd place the third adjective? And an idea of what adjective you'd use?

I should probably give you the 100 internets anyway, but am curious.

8:36 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

Heh, might be that I'm not a native, but I have retorts!

(Partially because I'm a thrawn sort too, and partially because I like to befecundiate rich argumentative soil when I come upon it; not to be confused with defending my variant, liking it just like *this* and not like *that*. I really don't care about it :))

Onto some queries, mostly in the vein of "this sounds to me like it has that particular sort of effect, could it have that sort of effect on a native too?":

1. The "fluttering". Seeing as how the word ends the whole phrase on two unstressed syllables, could it be taken as a sort of "unfinished"-ness, an almost-taking-to-the-air-but-not-yet sort of thing? Same for the double -ing, lending a stronger air of a verb not-quite-verbed-yet?

I do hear the better rhythm in "aflutter", but I'm also quite interested in effects of dissonance as well as assonance.

2. Completely agree about "herself"

3. As to the "harsh challenge" and also the "sharp thrills" farther along, my logic is similar to that of 1. They have a number of stressed syllables close by and to my ear at least sound "obstacle"-ly which in theory reinforces the meaning. Am I imagining things with that?

4. The missing comma maybe overdid it though, if it registers as a mistake :D I meant to both break the rule of three a little but and go hand in hand with last two overwrought adjectives, but maybe that would be the point break:

"Don't play around with straight up grammatical rules for the sake of style, unless you know what you're doing."

Anyway, sorry for hogging the comments section, it's a slow day and this is really interesting :)

8:47 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

Oh, I'm toasty, cool! :)
All right, I'm thinking, damned blogger, not letting me edit...

8:49 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Larry: It's certainly a whole lot better than the original, but as far as adjectives go... I'm not awfully keen on the "wondrous, mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay before her" I have to admit. Or "passionate spirit," to be honest; that verges on the torrid for me.

8:56 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

All right, might've hemmed myself in with that knight-move vein of thought, but I'm seeing some signs here, let me explain: we got Sensasion/Impulse with the “stepping out...tender birdsong” part, then a summary treatment of an implicit proces of Evaluation. Spirit stirret, she left open, in between a process. Seeing as how “brave” sounds to me like an expression of resolution and “passionate” - an expression of decision-making turmoil, I would place the third one first, and it would express some sort of indecisiveness, trepidation. It would both break down the neatness of three unequivocally positive adjectives and it would fit into the SIEGE continuity.

But maybe I'm overthinking it, the passage is pretty straightforward after all, something like the above might register as a mistake in that context...

The argument for a second-placed adjective would be to play off “passionate”, starting with it as a thematic component in a “turmoil-scheme”, that would be realized by the see-saw “fearful”,”brave” (if I decide to use fearful), leaving her open for both positive and negative, but always strong reactions to the mysteries and thrills of the challenge.

I'm not particularly liking anything for third place, since “brave” is already pretty strong, anything after that would send the phrase into overdrive, and anything that would overturn the meaning would be too glaring, since it would have to contain something like “though X/but X/even if X”, and it would have to contain something like that because you want the overturning element in a subjunctive position, so as not to sour the overall positive vibe of the closing part.

Well, it seems I both covered my bases and flogged the whole thing into the ground :D Yeah, now I'm pretty sure I'm overthinking it.

9:12 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

E.T.: A couple of responses:

1. FWIW, I can't say a phrase really feels "unfinished" to me just cause it ends on a dactyl. In this case it feels more... stumbly: left, right, left, leftrightright.

3. I think that works for "sharp thrills" but I'd go for "hard" then for "-d | ch-" rather than "-sh-ch-" if that notation makes sense?

9:22 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

3. Yeah, I see how the "d"'s better, palatal and all that.

1. Okay, sure, never liked continuous especially anyway :D

9:30 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Da boy done well!

Yup, "brave" is indeed the resolution, and the place I had in mind is indeed the first.

And "fearful" is close enough to one I was playing around with--"tremulous"--before I settled on "joyous" myself. I think "fearful" would be perfectly legitimate. I only discarded "tremulous" because we already have "stirring," and I'm not wholly sure it's a nervous stirring. My sense is more of *relish*, the stirring of keenness, eagerness.

So we resolve the subtextual affects loaded into "glorious" and "tender," together with the unspecified stirring, into joy, we ramp it to jubilation with "passionate," and send it to the peak of *exhileration* with "brave."

9:36 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Adding the optional punctuation change I had in mind, you'd get:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit--joyous, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

But I think we could equally well have:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit--tremulous, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

Or indeed:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit--fearful, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

So in short...

100 INTERNETS TO E.T.!!!

9:41 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

Ah, yes!

Glorious and tender do fit better with joy, not anxiety. I thought about them, but in a slower, more introspective manner, where on the inside of the woman there's rather a poet, first humbled, made a bit fearful by glory and tenderness, but then unfolding into a quieter, deeper sort of passion, and then bravery.

But an exhilarated child inside works better, yes, much more Okam-razorey, and whenever you can make your writing okam-razorey, you should, right?

BUT! I have to say, this is THE BEST, MOST GREATES INTERNETS I'VE EVER WON! I shall include it on the acknowledgments of my first book, when I muster the, heh, bravery to write it :)

It's been great, thanks a lot, Hal :)

Emo

9:53 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And with that I shall be stepping out into my bed, I think.

:D

9:59 am  
Blogger E.T. said...

Dog Susej!
Please do, sorry to keep you.

10:02 am  
OpenID scottkaelenofficial said...

Because I can't resist a re-shuffling of words, how about this:

"As she stepped outside, the sudden glorious sunshine and uplifting birdsong stirred her soul, opening her to the mysterious but thrilling challenges that lay ahead."

10:30 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

You lose me at "sudden," to be honest. Well, OK, at "sudden glorious sunshine and uplifting birdsong," where I raise my fists to the heavens and shout "NOOOOOO!!!!!!"

Consider: Is the sunshine really sudden? In and of itself? It's not jumping out at her and the world in general. It's been there outside all along, just shining away, as sunshine does on a sunny day--stable, steady, static, bathing the outside in its warm rays. That's to say, the suddenness lies in her (*action* of) discovery (of the world's *state*.) If we were talking about skies clearing, a crack in the clouds, a dull grey day shattered by a beam of sunlight, *then* the sunshine could be cast as agency, breaking through the clouds to surprise her. Here, what's sudden is only the impression that results from *her* action of stepping out into an environment in a fixed state.

We might claim poetic license to transfer the suddenness from the impact of the sunshine to the sunshine itself. That impact is an impression, and the impression here is twofold though. Why is the birdsong *not* sudden if the sunshine is? Surely, as she steps out into the sights and sounds of this wondrous world, if that world smacks her in the face with those wonders, it's going to smack her in the face with the birdsong just as it does with the sunshine.

Now, without the other adjectives, with a simpler "As she stepped outside, the sudden sunshine and birdsong..." we might parse it thus:

(the sudden (sunshine and birdsong))

We could then reattach the other adjectives so each applied to *both* sight and sound:

(the sudden (sunshine and birdsong,) (glorious and uplifting,))

But with the other adjectives where they are, we don't get this:

(the sudden ((glorious sunshine) and (uplifting birdsong)))

We get this:

(the (sudden glorious sunshine) and (uplifting birdsong))

The imbalance highlights the odd man out. The "sudden" draws attention to itself, and all I can think at this point is, no, the sunshine is *not* sudden in and of itself. Both sunshine and birdsong are sudden. Indeed, it's what they both *do* to her that's sudden--their impact on her, the stirring of her soul. So the clear articulation of that is actually:

"As she stepped outside, suddenly the glorious sunshine and uplifting birdsong stirred her soul..."

Untangling the awkwardness then, resolving the clarity issue with what exactly is being sudden here, we end up with an Adverbial Surprise Forewarning--which is a scourge on all narrative and must be eradicated.

Thing is, the adverbial that comes before a sudden event, telling us the event to come was sudden, actually delays it and forewarns the reader, negating the effect of suddenness that would come from simply conjuring the event. And then, suddenly, at that point, just like that, in an instant, when she least expected it, all of a sudden, she was incredibly shocked as... something happened. Reading sequentially, we assume that an event happens at whatever point in the narrative we're told of it. Telling us that it happened right then is redundant. Telling us that it happened suddenly is not just redundant--because if we simply read on we should have that event suddenly conjured in our imagination--it's self-defeating. In saying that the event that follows came with no forewarning, you are forewarning the reader of an event about to follow. The point is to conjure the suddenness, not communicate it.

So, yeah, for me the sentence crashes and burns at "sudden," I'm afraid.

5:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I'll note, you could also clarify by making it drawing out the shared impact of the sight and sound that the suddenness really attaches to, and articulating that as distinct from the affective effect:

"As she stepped outside, the sudden [impact] of glorious sunshine and uplifting birdsong stirred her soul..."

The word "impact" would be horrible there though, in terms of connotations. And the whole smack-in-the-face quality being ascribed to the impression sits uncomfortably with the subtlety of stirring.

6:09 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

In terms of subtlety, actually, you've lost it by switching in "uplifting" for "tender" or "delicate" too. "Uplifting" simply reiterates the intense/bold/big import of "glorious," so we no longer have anything conjuring the opposite quality in her affect, the subtle/soft/small import that is the very point of having the birdsong in there. That means, in turn, we no longer have the tension between the two, the paradoxical sense of the exquisite.

The verb "stirred" fails, I'd say, in the absence of that counterpoint. She's not been *touched* by the tender/delicate/gentle birdsong such that her spirit might (at first simply) stir. Indeed, she's already well past that. She's been *uplifted*. She's been "roused." Ultimately, I mean, what you're conjuring with that sentence is only a one-dimensional "gosh wow!" affect. Hence, for me, it doesn't come up to scratch. Not for what I think the original is trying to conjure.

6:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about this: "Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, naked,she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead." ?

5:09 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Not bad! Not bad at all! :D

In light of my conversation with E.T., I'd actually been tempted to invite suggestions for a *seventh* and *eighth* adjective. I only let it lie as I'm busy with a manuscript critique right now. Had I thrown it open again for expansion, you'd have just won 50 internets for getting halfway to exactly what I was thinking. :D

Why not the full 100 internets? OK, the "naked" on its own feels a little incomplete and isolated to me. It's a rhythmic halt in the sentence, (thus hinting at a pause on the threshold,) and conjures vulnerability. That's not a bad thing in and of itself; it works with the fearful/tremulous take on the moment, just not so much with the joyous take.

I'll come back to the latter. With the former... Sticking with the final versions thrashed out above, including the hendiatris (the technical name for that Rule of Three as a rhetorical technique,) these are both quite legitimate, I'd say:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, naked, she sensed a stirring in her spirit--joyous, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

Or:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, naked, she sensed a stirring in her spirit--tremulous, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

No reason to drop that triplet now we have it. With the three adjectives grouped like that into a unit, the sentence actually carries your addition better.

But with the "joyous" take, we don't want that tentative halt and we don't want full-on vulnerability. Actually, depending on what came before we might also want to guard against the ambiguity of "naked" which could be read literally rather than figuratively. Hell, regardless of what came before, it wouldn't hurt to prevent even a momentary misreading that will break the spell of conjuring as the reader spends a fraction of an instant correcting a fleeting impression, establishing clarity as regards what you mean.

For rhythm then, what I'd do is place a pairing of adjectives in there: "naked and [something]" or "[something] and naked." That will keep the cadence rolling. For import, if we want to tweak the sense of vulnerability to something more in line with her openness, we want to prime the reader to read the nakedness positively rather than negatively--so we go for "[something] and naked." We want a "[something]" such that when "naked" follows it, we don't think "stripped and shivering, raw, exposed," we think "unarmoured, unguarded and unashamed, naked even of all inhibitions." If we go for something that can only be figurative, that will also signal the reader to read "naked" as metaphoric rather than literal.

I'd say the word that does all this is fairly obvious, a traditional pairing: newborn.

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, newborn and naked, she sensed a stirring in her spirit--joyous, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

And so we end with eight adjectives where we started with five, and we end with a sentence that conjures the essential import of that action, I'd say, far more effectively than the original.

6:27 pm  
Blogger RWM said...

Coming to this a little late perhaps, but 'she sensed' for me feels quite removed. Something distant rather than felt. Changing it to more direct "Her spirit stirred..." brings us and her closer to the experience

3:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Not really on-topic given we're focused on adjectives here; but OK, let's explore your suggestion.

I'd say it's arguable at best, to be honest. I'd say you can't be much *less* removed than "she sensed," an action as intimately interior as they come. There is a degree of indirection in framing her affective reaction as a thing perceived. but it's in order to establish a subject-object relationship between her and the discovery within, essential to the conjuring of something more complex and self-aware (and tentatively, questioningly so) than you get with the direct "her spirit stirred."

More to the point, unless you're doing more edits, you just introduced a dangling participle with "stepping out into the..." attached to the wrong subject--her spirit rather than her:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, newborn and naked, her spirit stirred--joyous, passionate, brave--that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

This makes no sense, so you have to edit to something like:

"As she stepped out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, newborn and naked, her spirit stirred--joyous, passionate, brave--which left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

But if you lose "stirring" as a noun, we no longer have it to attach "joyous, passionate, brave" to, meaning those three adjectives become problematic. They're awkward attached to "spirit" when they're really a quality of the stirring itself, so for the sake of sense, either we'd have to convert them to adverbs or just cut them entirely:

"As she stepped out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, newborn and naked, her spirit stirred--joyously, passionately, bravely--which left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

Or:

"As she stepped out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, newborn and naked, her spirit stirred, which left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

The first is terrible--way too many syllables to maintain the cohesion you need for a viable adverbial hendiatric triplet. (Compare "truly, madly, deeply.") The failed triplet crumbling into adverbial slather, it just reads as horribly overwrought.

The second flattens out into dull pedestrianism in the second half. It could be improved slightly with "leaving" rather than "which left," but it still lacks anything in the way of dynamics, reads as limp and lacklustre communication in place of the conjuring we had; that tweak only stops it from becoming *actively* depositional with the explicatory quality of the "which."

5:00 pm  

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