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

36 thoughts on “Sometimes Lavender, Sometimes Purple: A Love Affair With Adjectives and Adverbs

  1. First, love the word “hooptedoodle” and will try to work it into as many conversations as possible today.

    Yes, Nora Roberts can be a bit wordy and I find myself skimming when I am not in the mood to dig through it. I have often found that I enjoy these descriptions much more when listening to the audio version- I like having the story TOLD to me rather than read all the “hooptedoodle “.

    That said, I LOVE all of the description and creative use of prose in the Outlander series- probably wouldn’t tolerate it in any other author’s writings.

    I loved Jean Auel and the Clan of the Cave Bear books- in the beginning. After about the third book, I was skimming quite a bit. By the time my sister gave me the final book, I was dreading it but read it because it was a gift.

    What does this say about my preferences as a reader? I think it depends on 1) my mood 2) my commitment to the book/author 3)how over the top the author is per/page.

    I haven’t quit a book in a long time due to author’s verbosity but it does happen. Not because I get pulled out of the story as much as I start thinking “I am wasting my time skimming!”

    • LeeF: First, love the word “hooptedoodle” and will try to work it into as many conversations as possible today.Yes, Nora Roberts can be a bit wordy and I find myself skimming when I am not in the mood to dig through it. I have often found that I enjoy these descriptions much more when listening to the audio version- I like having the story TOLD to me rather than read all the “hooptedoodle “.That said, I LOVE all of the description and creative use of prose in the Outlander series- probably wouldn’t tolerate it in any other author’s writings.I loved Jean Auel and the Clan of the Cave Bear books- in the beginning. After about the third book, I was skimming quite a bit. By the time my sister gave me the final book, I was dreading it but read it because it was a gift.What does this say about my preferences as a reader? I think it depends on 1) my mood 2) my commitment to the book/author 3)how over the top the author is per/page.I haven’t quit a book in a long time due to author’s verbosity but it does happen. Not because I get pulled out of the story as much as I start thinking “I am wasting my time skimming!”

      I love the word hootedoodle too. You notice that I worked in in the blog several times.

  2. I like dialogue, not picture drawing. I don’t “see in pictures” even though my kid’s dev ped told me I’m probably the “aspie” in the house. The “see in pictures” is another one of the autism myths.

    I do read character descriptions and since I “recognize” but don’t “memorize” it isn’t something I remember or dwell on for the rest of the book.

    Which is why I dislike long winded prose filled books. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue…. The more prose, the more I skim and the less likely I’ll read another book by that author.

  3. I side with Mark Twain: “If you see an adverb, kill it.” If you need an adverb to modify your verb, you’ve chosen the wrong verb. That said, I do like creative use of words and descriptors. Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief is one of my favorite books because of the way it’s written, to the point I’m a bit confused when people talk about the story.

    • “Kill the adverb”—I love it. I prefer my stories told efficiently and to the point. Obviously, descriptions are necessary; however, long-winded prose totally turns me off. I think that’s why the In Death series is working so well for me. Eve couldn’t be more to the point, as are the rest of the characters. Theresa Weir is another author who plays that game exceedingly (oops—an adverb :)) well. In fact, when I look at the list of my favorite authors (even the few historical ones), they know how to tell it in the less-is-more way.

      • I haven’t read Mark Twain in years so I am going to have to pick up one of his books and see if he followed his own advice. Of course Elmore Leonard said the same thing. I wonder if it really makes a difference?

  4. I think good dialogue moves a story along, but sometimes I like getting a good word picture to set the scene. I have to admit that while it’s wordy, that opening from Midnight Bayou works for me while your average purple prose-studded sex scene usually doesn’t. I haven’t run across the word “manroot” in a long time and that’s fine by me.

  5. I like a certain amount of descriptive language. Some books require more than others, I think, depending on the story.

    However, there are times when I agree that authors go overboard. “Too many descriptions–adverbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, etc.–spoil the broth,” if I may put it that way.

    Prime example (though YMMV): Kristen Callihan. Two interesting stories (Firelight, Moonglow) often bogged down by unneeded description.

    I’m also going to put it out there that while I loved A Lady Awakened (by Cecilia Grant), I think A Gentleman Undone suffered at times from over-wrought language, such as when the hero’s love-making sets the heroine “ablaze like a pagan pyre”.

    IMO, not every sentence needs to be a work of art, masterfully embellished; some sentences just need bare-bones functionality to keep the story moving along.

    BTW, I’m also having a bit of the same issue with Gone Girl, which I am half-way through now. The author really has a way with words, but sometimes, it’s just a little too much!

  6. I “see in pictures” so I prefer descriptive language when it’s creatively and well done. That’s probably the key for good writing, though–adverbs, dialogue, or whatever–when “it’s done well.” But purple prose or write-by-the-numbers? No, thank you.

    • Honestly, I never really thought about it, but I must not see in pictures. Many readers tend to pick out movie stars for the character leads, but I never really spend that much time thinking about what they look like.

      • I wasn’t thinking so much about characters’ looks necessarily as I was about settings and places and happenings. I love historicals set in the UK for instance so I love re-picturing landscapes and places I’ve visited and lived. I also like to be immersed in the story, so while I may not always see exact details of people’s features, I can “see” myself in the middle of what’s happening, maybe as a silent observer.

  7. I think a well written description is an important part of the story, if not critical, and I do see in pictures. I know there have been books I’ve read that I wished for better or more detailed descriptions. At the same time, excessive, or cheesy descriptions will get a book sent (back) to the UBS, although it has to be extreme.

    I have been trying to think of an author whose descriptions stood out for me in particular, but for the most part, I think, they just blend into the story. (the descriptions, not the authors) The exception to this is Mary Stewart. I don’t feel that her stories have held up very well, over time, but her descriptions are so wonderful, they are practically worth reading the book for alone.

    • You know, I have to agree with you even though it kills me to say it, I don’t think Ms. Stewart’s books have held up well either. And I used to love her books. But to be fair I don’t think that many authors’ book stand the test of time.

  8. If an author can’t distill a description into the right unembellished words, that author should start over. On the other hand, some authors, such as Karen Ranney, can at times make descriptive passage move like music. Good prose is good prose, whether spare or ornate.

    • Well, it may be good but that doesn’t mean I want to read it (grin). I tend to focus on the pacing of the story rather than the beauty of the words. Not sure why? I guess I am just impatient. It is not that I don’t appreciate the talent of expression but I want the author to get the point accross quickly.

  9. I like all different kind of voices. Sarah Addison Allen is a favorite. She is so descriptive in her writing. Another fave is Susanna Kearsley because she conjures such a wonderful sense of the sinister in her books. Mary Stewart is another favorites for the same reason.

    I can’t say that it matters to me how the author tells the tale. They can hand me a ton of descriptions or keep them simple. What matters is that the style suit the story.

    • I like both of the authors that mentioned and they do have a talent for description or setting the mood.

  10. I think the above comments reflect that it depends entirely on the reader as opposed to having a standard style which should regulate the genre. I try to stay true to my own style, which is quite sparse due to writing too many academic papers in the past. When I tried my hand at romance writing, I was told by the person who edited my work that I needed more physical descriptions of the characters and more “flowery, romance” language.

    I think that this kind of language is expected to a certain degree in this genre, mainly because it’s proven to be a winning formula. Romance writing is all about escapism, and that includes the use of language in a completely different manner than in other types of writing. Personally I’m more frustrated by irritating characters than language usage. As long as I like the plot and the heroine/hero I don’t mind a bit of clichéd language.

    • You are right. If the characters and the plot are interesting then I can overlook a lot. It is when I don’t like either that that I really start to notice the language.

  11. Like many others, I don’t mind description that fits my subjective idea of well done (that of course will vary reader to reader). I don’t particularly care for authors who try to lead me around on a leash with telling instead of showing. I’m quite capable of reading between the lines, and what’s not said can be as interesting and important as what is. Dialogue is tricky. It should fit the character’s personality and social station. Sometimes what we think of as bad grammar would be appropriate to particular characters.

    I’ve enjoyed the prose and language by authors such as Laura Kinsale, Judith Ivory and Mary Stewart (already mentioned by a previous poster). I’ve had a mixed reaction to Meredith Duran. Sometimes her descriptions do strike me as trying too hard, especially when I see them recycled from book to book, like boilerplate text.

    The adverb advice always reminds me of that old Schoolhouse Rock song: Lolly Lolly Lolly get your adverbs here. LOL.

    Finally, my pet peeve: What is it with romance authors and the amount of attention they give to the long eyelashes of their heroes? I sometimes wonder whether I’m reading about a man or an elephant!

    • Now boilerplate text is a whole topic by itself. Once I notice repetition in language or plot devices my enjoyment in the author’s books declines dramatically.

  12. Say, does The Romance Writer’s Phrase Book include the word “incandescent”? Because I swear, ever since the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice appeared (with its Americanized ending, that is) in movie theaters, it seems as though almost every historical romance I read includes that overused word. Just my imagination?

    • I haven’t noticed that particular word, but there was a time when any romance book issued seemed to have the word “conflagration” in it. Drove me crazy.

  13. I enjoy well written descriptions. I’ve now read so much romance that I am uncomfortable with books where main characters are not described. Adjectives by the wheelbarrow load and lengthy descriptions often irritate me. I just read L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, and while I enjoyed the story, I gritted my teeth every time the heroine quoted a description of nature from her favorite author. I also wish authors would stick to the words they know or use a dictionary — misused words always pull me out of the story. A white house is unlikely to look like alabaster, which is translucent, for example.

  14. Everything in moderation. Sometimes the picking the right verb means no adverbs are necessary. At other times the impact comes in the simplicity of the verbs and the added oomph of the adverb(s). Sometimes “He said quietly” hits the mark better than “He whispered.”

  15. Overwrought prose = Stephanie Laurens & Christine Feehan.

    Their blathering is so incredibly annoying. And, underneath all that nonsense can be some really good plots and (occasionally) enjoyable characters. Prune, people, PRUNE!!!

  16. I have never read a Nora Roberts book but I’ve listened to almost all of them and her descriptions are what I love (in audiobooks). I probably wouldn’t like it as much in written form. Perhaps “over the top” is a very personal level!

  17. “I just read L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, and while I enjoyed the story, I gritted my teeth every time the heroine quoted a description of nature from her favorite author”

    Yes! “The Blue Castle” is one of my favourite books, but I’ve always thought those nature books that Valancy loves so much sound appalling – endless waffling and windbagging. One paragraph is boring – I can’t imagine anyone reading a whole book of them.

    I’ve given up reading Adele Ashworth because her adverbs annoy me so much. Her characters never just say anything – they whisper quietly, respond thoughtfully, continue jovially, answer brightly.. etc etc. Once I started noticing this pattern it kept hitting my eyes – clunk, clunk, clunk. It’s a pity, because she’s a good author otherwise, but I wish I could let Mark Twain loose on those adverbs.

  18. Once I start noticing the language – when it pulls me out of the story, then I might as well quit reading the book.

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