Words, being the smallest and most basic building blocks of fiction, have lots of useful and important properties. I’ve already talked about specificity and sound; the next really key thing a writer needs to know about words is that they have different…strength or significance.
I define strong words as “the ones people pay more attention to.” They have more weight in the reader’s mind, and therefore make more of an impact. Since fiction is usually about making an impact on the reader, strength is probably the most important property and word, phrase, sentence, etc. can have.
What makes strength really useful, though, is that it isn’t an absolute property – it’s affected by a whole lot of other things that come along as words get strung together in different ways to make larger and larger units. This means that a writer can adjust the impact that a word or phrase or sentence has, by adjusting some of its other properties.
A word’s basic strength begins with the first four basic parts of speech that we all learned (one hopes) in school: noun, verb, adjective, adverb. Think of them as different sizes and shapes and colors of Legos. Put the right ones together in the right order, and you get a cool dinosaur; opt for ones that are the wrong size or shape, and you end up with an awkward unidentifiable lump.
So, parts of speech. The strongest one – the largest Lego – is the verb. Verbs are where the action is in any given sentence. Even so-called “passive verbs” indicate that something exists or is ongoing. A verb on its own can be an entire sentence, and a command, at that. You can tell a story with verbs alone: Look! Scream! Flee! Hide. Peek. Shoot. Duck. Explode. Cheer!
This is the reason so much writing advice puts so much emphasis on using dramatic, active verbs. Verbs are the strongest type of word, by nature, and using a vivid, specific, concrete one can double up that strength. By the same token, if the writer wants a word to have less impact (perhaps so that an upcoming plot twist will not be obvious, or because the writer wants more focus on some other part of a phrase or sentence, or just to give the reader a rest for a moment), choosing a verb that is abstract or general may be the way to go.
Next in terms of strength come nouns. Nouns and verbs are the basic bricks that everything else gets built with. Nouns aren’t as strong as verbs because until they have a verb to go with them, they just sit there. On the other hand, the more precise, clear, and specific you can make your nouns, the stronger they become. A red flower by any other name could be a carnation or a rose or a trumpet flower, but a rose is a rose is a rose.
Adjectives and adverbs are the weakest of the four basic building blocks, because they can’t stand on their own. “Small cold blue” doesn’t tell you anything until it has a noun like “elephant” or “shotgun” attached to it. In addition, some of time the right noun or verb can eliminate the need for one or more adjectives/adverbs; if so, you’re generally better off using that noun or verb because they’re stronger to begin with.
Another difficulty with adjectives and adverbs is that the more of them one uses, the weaker they become. This applies whether one is overloading just one noun or verb with four or five descriptors, or whether one has a modest one descriptor for each and every noun or verb on a page.
Because of all this, and because too many writers overuse them, adjectives and adverbs get a bad rap in a lot of writing advice. In its most exaggerated form, this becomes the “never use adverbs/adjectives” rule. But even if you are trying to pack your prose with as many dramatic, high-impact words as possible, ignoring adverbs and adjectives is not automatically your best choice. Yes, they are weaker than nouns or verbs, but the concrete/precision property still applies: the more precise and specific the adjective, the stronger it tends to be.
And if you have an adjective or adverb that makes its noun more concrete and precise in a way that can’t be done with just a concrete noun, you have a winner. “Holy book” is a generic noun plus an adjective; “Bible” “Koran” or even “prayerbook” would be stronger in most cases. But “scarf” is a generic noun; “silk scarf” is more specific, and there isn’t a noun that would do the job. Likewise, adjectives and adverbs that are unexpected are usually Good Things: “Wonderful,” he said glumly.
So the best advice is, as always, not to just delete all the adverbs and adjectives indiscriminately, but to think about the desired effect and whether the adverb/adjective is really necessary. “‘I hate you,’ she said angrily.” doesn’t really need the adverb because the angry tone is consistent with the dialog; “she snarled” would be better, and it would be fine with just “she said.” But “‘I hate you,’ she said cheerfully” isn’t a sentence that can drop the adverb and still mean the same thing. Neither is “The band played badly.”
Notice that a lot of what I’m talking about here is the way that words relate to each other. Because face it, the important thing about Legos is not the shape of each piece; it’s how they fit together and what you can make with them. That really begins with the next level up from words: phrases. Which is what comes next.