Stories of epic fantasy bring the reader to another world. There may be dragons, strange beasts, combat between dark sorcerers and hard-pressed wizards. The land itself may be enchanted, and several moons might hang in the sky. In short, magic is at play.
But all stories bring the reader into the world of the main character, no matter that the setting is Middle-earth or Manhattan. In order to work, fiction must make that world come to life, and the author has to conjure a sense of reality from mere words on a page. Magic indeed.
An author might write, “The dragon lifted its head and eyed the warrior.” But the reader is entitled to ask, “What sort of dragon? Is it winged? Is it long and sinuous? Is it reptilian? Is its tail barbed? Does flame flicker deep in its cavernous mouth? Or is it a cold drake?” But if the reader has to ask those questions, the spell is broken, for they are no longer seeing images in their imagination, but trying to construct a picture by rational thought. That is the death of epic fantasy – or any fiction.
Writing experts, writing teachers, style guides and the self-appointed literati advise to avoid adjectives. But if you read the above paragraph again, and remove the adjectives, you’re left with little more than the dragon.
If I had to construct a mental picture myself, I would make him a winged creature with two curls of smoke rising from his long snout. You, on the other hand, might see a barbed behemoth never to be airborne, hard-plated scales undulating as he writhed over the ground like a snake. All very good until the author has your dragon take to the sky, and then the spell is broken.
So, while the experts proclaim rules, the best writers go about telling stories their own way and working a spell on readers. Few would serve as a better example than Tolkien, so I’ll quote The Lord of the Rings. The scene is in Rohan, and Gandalf is speaking to Wormtonge.
“Thus Gandalf softly sang, and then suddenly he changed. Casting his tattered cloak aside, he stood up and leaned no longer on his staff; and he spoke in a clear cold voice. ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.”
If that doesn’t convince you of the magic of adjectives, nothing will.
A word of warning though: not all passages should be so epic, even in epic fantasy. Adjectives are potent, but the magic soon fades if used too much, or worse, when the noun they modify doesn’t need it. For instance, saying, “They walked over the green grass,” is superfluous.
Try not to prove the experts right.