Details and Description—Using Verbs Rather than Adjectives
By Britney Pieta
(Professor Tammie Bob, Fiction Class, COD Spring semester of 2010)
Oddly, it is the verbs rather than the adjectives a writer chooses that create the strongest images in a reader’s mind. Odd, because early on we learn that adjectives are “describing” words.
What image do you get when you read:
Steve was the fastest runner on the team.
Instead you could say:
“Every race began with a cloud of runners bobbing almost in unison. Then the cloud thinned so you could distinguish individual runners by the color of their shirt. And soon, Steve, a blur of blue, would jet out of the cloud, flying along the track, alone.
Having Steve “jet” and “fly” is more convincing than telling the reader he is the “fastest.” The verbs give the reader something to “see”. But so do nouns and objects, which are key to what is generally referred to as “detail.”
As you write, you look around your setting and choose what’s there that reinforces your story, that creates mood and meaning, character, time, significance. You choose how to present those objects. Making these choices is key to your story…if everything is listed, it seems random and boring, over-described. Beginning writers often do this with characters, describing their appearance as if issuing an all points bulletin: Six feet tall, red hair, blue eyes, glasses, goatee, gray tee shirt, jeans, sandals.
Better to choose the details, and work them into the action.
Another example is: “Kevin picked a scrap of food of his red goatee and seemed to consider the long, dusty gray toes splaying from the ragged straps of his sandals before he spoke.”
You get an image of Kevin, and some of his character emerges as well.
The uses, and amount, of significant detail varies by writer, according to their style, sensibility, and era. Some details may be ambiguous, but too often newer writers confuse uncertainty in a reader with their own vague awareness of the story, which results in an unfocused, even pointless narrative.