Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Sep 18, 2013

Adjective Triangles

Continuing on from yesterday, here's another bit of writing advice that I think is misdirected: don't make lists of adjectives (or things).  Yet again, this is a common thing for a reason, but it's easy to misuse because people just starting out don't really know the purpose of it.

To be clear, this is what I mean: a list of adjectives or "adjective triangle" is when you use three terms to describe something.  Like calling a man "tall, dark, and handsome".  As an aside, that one's a staggeringly awful cliche, particularly since "handsome" is a meaningless throwaway term that does not, actually, describe anything.  If you ever read the word "handsome" in a description of a male character this is basically a way of screaming "it does not matter what this character looks like other than that he's kind of generically good-looking in a conventional sort of way".  Handsome, far from being a compliment, is highly dismissive.  Funny, huh?  Same for pretty or even beautiful on a woman.  Now, if a woman is handsome and a man is pretty, that's a different story because these terms actually have some slight specificity when attached to the other sex.  Anyway, I digress.

What makes an adjective triangle (or any other kind of list like this) a bad one is when you just throw out any old random qualities.  Lists like these have a very specific purpose: they zero you in on a very specific combination of traits or aspects or whatever. Or, for another example, it's like creating a sort of description Venn Diagram:

The three descriptive terms need to all lean together in some sort of connected way to add up to something.  It's hard to get really specific here because the connections can be pretty tenuous and what feels randomish to one person may not feel that way to another.  For example, you might describe a man as being tall, blond, and Swedish.  To me, those are reasonably well-connected because a lot of Swedes are tall and blond.  It makes a triangle because the traits are often found in company.  Blond and Swedish is a more specific type of tall man . . . tall and blond is a more specific type of Swedish man.  They lean together.  What you wouldn't do is say a man was "tan, confused, and sweaty".  This is not a triangle.  You're not creating a diagram of interrelated traits (although confused could go with sweaty and tan could go with sweaty, just the three of them together doesn't work).

There's another example of this that's worth looking into, however.  You can subvert this triangle-building by adding in a term (or terms) that not just doesn't relate to the other two but actively contradicts them.  Neal Stephenson in particular does this a LOT, and it adds a sort of edginess to his writing, making him look subversive.  For example, he might describe a part of California as being full of hotels, golf courses, universities, landfills and prisons.  The first three set you up for a sort of pleasant, unexceptional middle-class sort of landscape.  The other two break this up and suggest that there's a seedy underside to all this pleasant homeliness.

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