Monday, January 11, 2010

Multiple Modifiers: A portal to deeper characterization

As you read back through your story looking for ways to improve it, stop and question each set of multiple modifiers. If all they provide superficial detail, as many such word sets do, reconsider their usage. Because if you let them, they can provide a window to deeper characterization. All you have to do is climb through.

Let's say the first set you come to says that your character has “long stringy orange hair.” In your first draft, that visual image was enough—the movie of story was unreeling in your mind, you saw the character, you took notes. By applying three modifiers your subconscious suggested that this character's hair was a detail worthy of further consideration. In this draft you have an opportunity to do just that—and in doing so, uncover deeper meaning.

Long. Stringy. Orange. It is unfair of you to ask your reader to sift through your verbiage to arrive at meaning. How is she to know what is the most important information if you as author don’t? Try paring that word cluster down to the most important modifier. After all, this isn’t a film—if you give the reader meaning, she will come up with her own visual.

In the case of “long, stringy orange hair,” there is no one right answer. If the hair is inordinately long, and this will come into play later—as a mode of strangulation, or in an emotional turning point where the hair is ritualistically cut off—then its length may be the most important modifier at first. You can always add orange and stringy in later if you want, but spotlight length now and your reader will remember it later. How long is it? Apply a comparison that is relevant to your specific story. Is it so long that if she isn’t careful her brother will sit on it when he flops next to her on the couch? So long she could keep four Locks of Love patients in the current hair fashions? So long she must wear a size larger batting helmet to tuck it all up inside?

If you choose stringy: why is this important? Is she poor, or homeless? Did she have no mother to teach her to care for her type of hair? Is she too preoccupied to read the directions that say she must rinse out the hair conditioner? Or maybe she can’t read? And how does she feel about her hair? Is it a constant frustration that no amount of product can give her that lift that will attract boys? Or is her hair simply the least of her problems? Does her stringy hair reflect depression, or a devil-may-care tomboyishness?

If you choose orange: is the hair a flaming flag of Irish temper? Was the natural brown bleached out and replaced with Day-Glo orange, much to the character’s mother’s dismay? Or is her hair color the genesis of “Pumpkin,” the nickname she hates?

As you encounter further multiple modifiers, follow a similar exploration to see if you can pare away a barrage of detail to find that one telling detail that will deepen your story’s meaning. Assured that you have layered meaning into your story, your reader will start to look for it.

Give this a try—it's fun! And who knows. Maybe the sheer number of words your subconscious attributed to it in the first draft will tell you there’s more story to that “blue-striped canvas folding chair” than you originally thought.


Kathryn Craft is a free-lance editor at, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. For 19 years she wrote dance criticism and arts features for The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, and for publications of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. She now writes memoir essays and women's fiction.

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  1. Thank you Kathryn. Breaking down the adjectives and the reason why they're there is very helpful. Sometimes writers are in such a hurry to have a finished book that they (we) overlook how we can better the book by looking at the details.

    Straight From Hel

  2. What a brilliant post. I know that writers shouldn't use many adjectives so to show and not tell, it's smart to do what you suggest.


  3. Wonderful, informative, extremely helpful post, Kathryn. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the heads up. When revising, I usually just choose the most descriptive adjective when I have more than one. Delete the rest. Now, you're telling me the others have importance too.

    *makes funny face* Why is revising more complicated than writing the draft?

  5. Dear Kathryn,

    I come here to be inspired. I am never disappointed. Peace and continued good things for you and your readers in creativity and in life.


  6. Excellent post, Kathryn. A string of adjectives is one of the things I see often in mansucripts I critique. I do it in my own writing, too. The delete key comes in very handy during my revision and self-editing phase.

  7. Thank you. Very true. The story is in the words and if we cut out the extra garbage and build on the important stuff, our tales will sing.

  8. What great advice! I know I'm guilty of leaning on the multiple modifier crutch. Your tip for how to deal with it will come in handy during my upcoming revisions.


  9. What a great post. I had not thought of modifies in this way, but surely will now. And your remark that a novel is not film really cemented the points you made. We need to stop and remember the difference.

  10. What a wonderful post! I'd never really thought about modifiers before, but while I'm doing my revision, I'll see if any of the language I used during writing speaks of things going on under the surface that I didn't think of consciously!

  11. I learn more from this blog than most other places. Thank you for adding to my knowledge base. My brain is soggy from soaking up ways to improve my writing.

  12. " In your first draft, that visual image was enough—the movie of story was unreeling in your mind, you saw the character, you took notes."

    I have to say, for myself as an illustrator, you really nailed it here. This is EXACTLY how it is for me as I draw character designs based on an author's manuscript. So neat that it's that way for you writers, too!

  13. Sometimes writers are in such a hurry to have a finished book that they (we) overlook how we can better the book by looking at the details.

    Work from home India

  14. Great advice, Kathryn. I love to use multiple modifiers, but it sometimes drives me nuts!

    Earlier today, I was writing a face description and could not get it right. I can go back to it now.

    Thank you for helping me kill my darlings.


  15. Thanks for the reminder. Going beyond the use of adjectives for descrption and creating a connection to a part of the story. To clarify your comment about films and meaning, how do you control a reader giving meaning to anything whether there is meaning in it or not, safer perhaps to offer it. Happily I say this supports what I have been telling people about writing, that's it not a simple thing and many decisions must be made along the way in creating a novel. I don't know if someone is proofing your articles."If all they provide IS superficial detail, as many such word sets do, reconsider their usage." You might want to have a talk with them.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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