How to Use Adjectives in Storytelling

When a writer tells a story, they’re essentially saying, “Okay, picture this,” and then using words convey that image. Nouns and verbs put objects and actions on the canvas; however, color, texture, atmosphere, shape, etc. are needed to flesh out the picture.

Imagine describing Van Gogh’s Starry Night without adjectives or adverbs. It’s nighttime. There are stars in the sky, and the moon is on the right of the canvas. A patch of trees is in the foreground to the left, and a village is in the background in front of the mountains.

That’s Starry Night, right? Yes, but it fails to capture the tone or the mood of the painting. That’s what adjectives and adverbs for; however, descriptors should be used sparingly, not liberally. What is more, factual or tangible descriptors should be selected over matters of opinion. Here’s what I mean by that.

Vincent Van Gogh's  Starry Night,  oil on canvas. Old. Old enough to make your grandma feel young. Worth more than your neighborhood, probably. "It's nice, but I don't see us living there."

Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, oil on canvas. Old. Old enough to make your grandma feel young. Worth more than your neighborhood, probably. "It's nice, but I don't see us living there."

What are Factual Descriptors

There are many words we can use to enhance the above depiction of Starry Night; however, which do we choose? Some are factual, obvious choices. The sky is blue. The moon and stars are yellow. The trees are dark green. The town is also blue-hued except the white church steeple. The wind is light blue (feel free to open a box of Crayola crayons to find a specific shade). A yellow wind wavers over the blue rolling hillside.

What are Subjective Descriptors

Between matters of fact and opinion are subjective descriptors. For example: tall trees, big moon, wavy trees, curling wind. Loose brushstrokes. Subjective descriptors are such because they are accurate relatively speaking. In other words, relative to the other features in the sky, the moon is big. Compared to the church in the background and the perspective of the artist, the tree seems tall. Against the sky, the wind is curling. Are there bigger moons, taller trees, and curlier winds? Sure.

What are Opinion Descriptors?

Lastly, we have descriptors that suffice as opinions. For example, it’s a beautiful painting or it’s an ominous sky or an exceptional work of art. While adjectives, they’re not telling us anything tangible or visual about the work. They merely express the writer’s feeling about the work. These are the weakest descriptors and should be used sparingly. They are best used by a narrator who is expressing his or her perception and thus revealing character. Let's put this in perspective by comparing narrator A and narrator B.

  • Narrator A: As the docent drones, I take in the trite work, of the varying shades of blue sloppily dashed across the canvas. Is that a tree in the foreground or Troll hair because I literally can’t tell. Did the artist spill his paints? I could’ve done this.

  • Narrator B: I know it’s cliché, but Starry Night really is one of my favorites. The calm colors dominate the canvas, and the loose style and rolling curves of the wind and the hills make me feel like I’m swaying in a hammock--it's like I'm a kid again.

Both narrators express their opinions about the work while also giving us some idea of what it looks like (though, not much). What we get from these opinions is information about the narrators. One is a pessimist with a chip on his shoulder. He might also be a dad because he knows about Trolls…we’re not sure yet.

The second narrator is in awe of the work. She seems mellow and young because she says the work makes her feel like a kid again…not that it makes her feel young, which suggests she still is (young).

Thus, it can be appropriate at times for the narrator (mind narrator is not the same as the author) to use such adjectives, but again, I advocate using them sparingly.

Using Adjectives in Storytelling

So, how does this translate into your writing? Well, factual nouns set the scene. Look at this short story by Steve Carr (who I think is fantastic, by the way). Here are some great descriptors that he uses to sharpen the imagery:

  • White Stetson hat—that’s perfect. We all know what a Stetson hat is, and now we know it’s white. We have crisp image.

  • Rawhide jacket

  • Curly blonde hair

  • Pearl handles

  • Colt six shooter revolvers

These adjectives sharpen because they are irrefutable matters of fact. The man’s coat is made of raw hide. His gun’s handles are made of pearl. The revolvers are Colt brand, and they’re six-shooters.

Moving along, let’s look at some subjective adjectives / adverbs. Steve doesn’t use them in excess, so they don’t distract from the writing, but I want to highlight them because they don’t create as focused an image as those factual descriptors.

  • Murky water

  • Dusty black suit

  • Dimly lit interior

  • Rickety wood walkway

Because the POV is third-person limited, I feel that these descriptors are here for our (the reader’s) benefit (or at least for those completely unfamiliar with the western trope).

I say that because Lark, the protagonist, is likely accustomed to rickety walkways and bad lighting (hell, if it’s the old west, he’s lucky to have any lighting), dust everywhere, etc. So, unless Lark is Marty McFly and has come back from the future (GREAT SCOTT!), subjective adjectives such as these are for the audience, and could either be eliminated or replaced with stronger adjectives or verbs. Ex:

  • Brown water

  • Wood walkway creaked

  • The bartender brushed a tuft of dust off his black suit

"Is that Clint Eastwood?"

"Is that Clint Eastwood?"

Now, bear with me as I’m being very picky as the original writing if perfectly fine and to make accommodations given these suggestions, Steve would have to restructure some of his sentences, so as a writer, one must ask and consider what is stronger? What is more important? Is it even necessary to include certain details if they could be removed without changing the story, or is it necessary to include details that enrich the story regardless of if they're essential?

I say it’s a balance. You want your factual descriptors first and foremost; with other descriptors, use them, but do so sparingly. Always ask yourself: does this make my story better, or is it muddling the point? Are these things my narrator would notice and find worthy of noting?

I’ll give one more example. This week, a student wrote a piece about a man who was kidnapped and locked in the back of a trunk (ugh, if I had a nickel for every time that happened...). The POV was first-person, present tense. During the ride through Salem, the protagonist started to muse about the nearby fishing town he lived in. It wasn’t poorly written; however, it didn’t fit the scene nor was it necessary for us—the readers—to know where he was from. What's more, it smothered the urgency of the scene we were inhabiting.

The narrator's locked in a trunk, and his wife is possibly dead. Any musings beyond how to get out of the trunk or who might be behind the abduction or perhaps the fate of his wife are going to be gratuitous descriptions and background for the reader, which takes us out of the story and is simply not okay.

I digress. To wrap things up, when it comes to writing, nouns and verbs are your foundation. Decorate sparingly. Use your factual adjectives first and then hang a few adverbs and lesser adjectives on the wall for effect, then walk away. Less is always more.

Need help editing or want feedback on your wordplay? I love grammar, punctuation, and style, and I would be happy to help you enhance your storytelling skills. Contact me for proofreading, copyediting, or line editing services. E-mail me at or click this link to contact me. Happy writing! (GREAT SCOTT!)