Advertisers have known for a long time that if you want to make something sound delicious, just add adjectives. The adjectives don’t even have to make sense. String them on in sequence, and the subject becomes desirable.
A quick example: oatmeal.
Oatmeal is okay, but it’s about as bland a thing as you can eat. Right?
Let’s make it more interesting. Let’s just add one word. The word doesn’t even say anything about the flavor. It’s just a brand: Quaker oatmeal.
It might not be delicious yet, but it’s suddenly more interesting. Just making it specific has conjured up a particular bowl of oatmeal, perhaps with an image of a man in a tricorn cap. Maybe you have fond memories of eating that particular oatmeal. Maybe you just remember the commercials. But I bet if choice one was oatmeal, and choice two was Quaker oatmeal, most people would go for the more specific choice.
But let’s take this to eleven. Let me throw some extra descriptors into the mix and see if I can change your next meal plans: Rich, steel-cut, buttered, cinnamon and brown-sugar oatmeal, still hot and steaming.
Now we’re talking, right? Maybe you don’t normally like oatmeal, but the specifics paint an image that would at the very least get you to try a spoonful.
Of course, words do what you want them to do. You can make something delicious or disgusting with word choices. But those descriptive words are additive. You can keep piling on the spice by adding more words to the soup.
What you sacrifice in a story by indulging in this level of specificity is immediacy. When you stop to taste the world more deeply, you slow the story down. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, alternating between high-octane adventure and Tolkienesque dives into detail can keep the reader going. You want their heart to race, but you also want them to have a chance to slow down and breathe.
It can also be a very effective way of tightening the strings of suspense. Adding just that much more detail before a reveal and a release draws the moment out. The girl being hunted in the night. Her breath steaming to mist. Her hands shaking. The slow, shuffling drag of her feet through the grass, because she’s so tired from running. The warm light of safety just a few more feet away. If she can just go just a little further. If she can just…
You can stretch a moment out like that for a long time through adding more and more description. But don’t go too far because this is a point where the reader is holding their breath. Make them hold it good and long, but don’t try to make them pass out. If they release that held breath too soon, they’re likely to get bored and fall out of the moment.
Adjectives are delicious. They come at a cost, but when they’re used right, the cost is cheap and the payoff is huge. They can be used to make a part of your story more vivid, while at the same time, alter the flow of the story, controlling the pace.
One last example of descriptors done right is Chuck Wendig’s #HeirloomApples tweets. Every day or so, he tweets about two or three heirloom apples, and it is amazing. Click on the following, and read through the child tweets. They’re good enough to make a guy forget he had a tummy ache.
— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) October 25, 2017