The other day, Linette Allen posted a picture of a terrace overlooking the sea with the story prompt “What happened here?” I wrote a few lines and was encouraged to continue which became the story I Did Right which I posted a few days ago. I was immediately told that I should delete all the adjectives and some adverbs (I posted both the story with the adjectives and without the adjectives and adverbs as Draft 1 and Draft 2). Which brings us once again to the question: What are adjectives for?
I briefly wrote about this question before. Adjective do serve a purpose, if not so much to describe the scene as much as to define the voice that tells it. Voice matters as much as the story. And adjectives, I believe, make the voice. That is why the adjective I was most loathe to part with in I Did Right was the word “woefully” in the first sentence.
“Wilson looked over the railing to the blue expanse of the Mediterranean below, the only witnesses being the eroded marble busts on the low pillars spaced between the rails gazing woefully at the terrace.”
Stones do not have emotion, therefore “woefully” is not correctly used in this text. What sort of person would notice that there was an air of despair in the way ancient statues looked over a terrace under clear skies? What kind of atmosphere would it create for the story? It was the word “woefully” that lead me to write “Horrid business, Wilson thought, to be conducting under such a glorious sky”. And it was this thought that directed me in the direction of the rest of the story. Maybe “woefully” should be deleted in the second draft, but in the first draft, it was the word that directed the story.
Let’s try another sentence.
He stood under the blue sky.
The first thing you notice is that blue seems redundant. Skies are usually blue. But if you delete this word and say “He stood under the sky” the sentence itself seems redundant because where else would you stand?
He stood under the azure sky.
This is different. Azure is pretty much the same color as blue, but the word communicates a sense of intensity, an in-your-face blueness of unfamiliar urgency. This is the sky over the Mediterranean, the Gobi Desert, Antarctica, or some other exotic place. Whoever is standing there is the sort of person who would be standing there.
He stood under the purple sky.
Again, completely different. You can immediately see the picture. The setting is probably dusk or dawn. Perhaps there are stars in the sky. There is even a feeling of anticipation that something is about to happen because we are in the transition period between day and night.
He stood under the pink sky.
Is he stoned? Is he in some kind of a psychotic episode? Or is this a sci-fi story set on an alien planet? It is unnatural, and therefore it projects less recognizable atmosphere or emotion, but at least it catches your attention.
He stood under the yellow and black polka dotted sky.
Now this is really confusing. Either he or the narrator is definitely crazy. The sentence is only strange and does not evoke a time, place, emotion, or sense of what is about to happen. As a result, the whole sentence is meaningless and redundant.
An adjective that projects the feeling of the story is somewhere between “blue sky” and “yellow and black polka dotted sky”. In either extreme, the whole sentence becomes meaningless. Somewhere between “azure” and “pink”, slightly off center, an adjective serves the story.
So getting back to “woefully”, should the word remain in the text?