Author's Ink

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Huh?  What's a Modifier and what does it do?

the red ball...

Let's talk about this red ball...just for a little while.  What can we say about it?  It's a ball, so its round-ness is implied.  And it's red.  We could mention size, so, small, medium, or large?  We could even get really, really writerly and call it fiery, or crimson.  But basically, its a red ball. 

But let's break that down and make it really writerly.  A ball...we could say many things about a ball.  It's a circular (in a 3-d kind of way) object that can be hurled, rolled, bounced, hit, and thrown.  And it flies through the air like...what?  A bird?  A kite?  A jet airplane?  And I could mention each of these things as a means of description every single time I mention the ball, could write a happy little metaphor too, but how long would I go on with this before you'd want to punch me in the face? 

In other words, is there so much as one aborigine left in Africa who wouldn't make these connections if I said the word ball to them in their own language?  And if there is, what would Satan do to him?  LOL.  We can break the color red down in the same manner, but should we?

The point?  Overuse of modifiers and how they muddy up your writing.  And here's where your English teacher did you a disservice.  She didn't mean to, mind you, she just needed to make sure you knew what an adverb was, and an adjective.  And we all make the same mistake.  We do, and you know it!  We get in that zone where we're trying to be very specific and describe our visions to the nth degree so that our readers will get the visual.  And here's the pattern:  adjective, noun,  verb, adverb.  The red ball rolled quickly across the hardwood floor.  Absolutely grammatically correct.  And the next sentence:  The small boy picked up the red ball excitedly.  And so on...  But fiction is not English comp. folks and realistically, no one gives a shit about the red ball.  Unless, of course, you're a poet, and that's another page on its own.  Or obviously, if the red ball comes with its own tiger.  Now that's a detail you wouldn't want to leave out.

But writing is a big job.  And since modifiers are correct and seemingly desireable if we want to be writerly, then what's the problem?  Here it is:  The round, crimson-red, two inch in diameter, ball rolled quickly across the shiny, Oak, hardwood floor and off the face of the earth!  Whaaaaaaaaa??????????????  Screw the ball, the color, the shape, the size...  what I want to know about is how the hell did it roll off the face of the Earth!  And all these modifiers are getting between me and what I really want to know, slowing down the action, and annoying the shit out of me. Adjective, noun, verb, adverb...lather, rinse, repeat.

Simply put, modifiers are tools.  And tools are handy little gadgets to have around when you need them.  Now...you could use a sledgehammer to bang the buttons on your keyboard, but is that really neccessary?  Or would it be wiser to save the big guns for the important jobs?  Think minimalist--think impressionist...and let your readers fill in some of the blanks.  What if they prefer green balls to red ones?  The question is, does their visualizing green balls instead of red really affect your story?  And does the fact that the balls are really red, in your mind, further your plot?  Does anyone care and how many of you are ready to punch me in the face now?

So here's a simple guide about when and why to use modifiers:

1.  Use them to shine the light on important or uncommon objects.  This red ball was different because...it had a tiger on top of it!   (other than that, it was just another large, red ball, and we all know what that looks like.)  And btw...the sun is always a giant, fiery, yellow-red ball, and I don't care if you use a thousand different adjectives, the bugger is still god-awful hot.  You know it, I know it, and that  aborigine knows it too!  So really, just tell me that the sun is coming up.  I'll get the picture.  There's only one sun and the thing comes up every day and here in Florida, it just means it's going to be another hot one.  Now if you're talking about the planet Zenon, in the center of the third black hole in the fifth dimension...well, better include some adjectives cuz that's one I'm just not familiar with.

2.  Use them to create the mood:  Check your paragraphs for tone.  If you're writing about a tragic incident then I'd reasonably expect a string of modifiers to reflect that.  ie...dark, black, melancholy...and if you mention that bright, yellow ball of a sun, it had better be used in stark contrast to the tone, and you'd better have a good reason.  I'm not a freakin' yo-yo!

3.  Use them to show things like time, location, and condition in order to show, not tell.  Ie...instead of saying that someone is poor, describe their couch as shabby.   One well-placed modifier can replace a dozen obvious words and make the piece so much more interesting.  Also, using them to reflect personality is good.  If someone's clothing is unkempt or dirty, then what can we infer about them?  Conversely, can we infer anything if their clothing is red?  Do we really care if Karen Jones is wearing a red, plaid blouse today?  I don't.  But if that blouse is torn and dirty, then I want to know what's up with Karen?  This is more than a bad day at the office. 

4.  Use them to be specific:  Avoid 'vanilla' words whenever possible.  Ie...big, small, nice, good.  These words can mean anything at all, but more likely mean nothing!  Vanilla is a good flavor, but it's far too common.  And mostly, I won't drive very far to get it, nor does it evoke any particularly strong associations for me.  Spice it up with something, like 'French', and top it off with something even better like maple walnut or apple cinnamon and suddenly I'm your girl!

Obviously, there are more reasons to use modifiers.  But the moral of the story is this:  overuse of modifiers is the equivalent of dulling the blade of your favorite knife. 

Or better yet, think of them as spices, or the icing on the cake.  There's the cake, which is ninety-five percent of the dessert, and then there's the icing.  And it's delicious.  But there's only a little bit of it and the chef always leaves you wanting more.  But if the cake were just a thin layer, and then there were these god-awful gobs of sickly sweet icing...seriously, a three inch layer of icing...how much cake would you eat?  Just a bite or two, and then any more would make you want to hurl. 

Modifiers are important tools.  Use them only when you need them, use them artfully, and use them with care.

One final point, brought up by Anthony, and I'm quoting here:

"Our language is an amalgamation of several different languages, and that means we have a huge lexicon to choose from. English usually offers a multitude of words for any given concept (e.g., full - replete, loaded, bursting, packed, stuffed, glutted, teeming, sated...), each of which offers a different set of nuances and connotations that impact the idea the word is used to communicate. And that is where a lot of the precision and artistry comes into writing. Why say, "He was really full," when you can say, "He was stuffed"? The former uses two words to communicate an idea less efficiently (and less visually) than the latter. You could write, "He ran quickly," but that doesn't work as well as "He sprinted," or "He flew." "  Thanks, Anthony.  Good Point!