How to invigorate your writing
Substitute verbs for adjectives and adverbs and watch your story take off
Published: January 27, 2006
|Finding the right word is the writer's eternal quest. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." |
Twain could have easily substituted "verb" for "word," because the most important right word to place in your sentence is the verb. It's the engine that drives your story.
The verb depicts action that can define a character: a father scowls, a child stamps her foot, and so forth.
Consider these two paragraphs, describing the same basic action.
He went unevenly on the curved path that led down to the river. There was the little cabin with the cottonwood trees behind it. Smoke was coming out from the chimney and in the sunset's light he could see the woman making dinner. An old man was chopping wood in the yard. A boat was tied to the jetty, its motor running.
An adequate, if uninspired, description.
Now let's try energizing the prose by infusing it with vigorous verbs. Start by eliminating such weaklings as went and was.
He lurched along the path that snaked its way down to the river. A cabin squatted on the bank, flanked by cottonwoods. Smoke curled from the chimney, and he could see the sunset's light glint off the woman's spatula as she flipped over the meat patties. In the yard, an old man swung his axe to cleave cylinders of pine. A boat rocked alongside the jetty, its motor grumbling in the water.
You can see that lurch substituted for went gives the reader a more visual image. Such verbs as trudged, limped, slouched, trotted, scurried, hurried, skipped, ambled, strolled, staggered, shuffled, fled, minced, flounced, slunk or sped create a mental picture obtainable by no other word combination. (Incidentally, I borrowed the phrase about the boat's motor, "grumbling in the water," from Elmore Leonard. You can learn much about writing from his books.)
P.G. Wodehouse, who created the immortal Jeeves tales, knew the power of the verb and made good use of it. Jeeves, the canny and resourceful butler, always appears by surprise, unannounced in front of his employer, Bertie Wooster:
"Jeeves flowed in with the tray, like some silent stream meandering over its mossy bed."
"He trickled into my room."
"He had shimmered in."
"He floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. ... This fellow didn't seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in. ... Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn't there any longer."
Wodehouse had to find the right verbs to describe the Jeeves. Graham Greene, on the other hand, searched for the right words to create excitement. In his autobiography A Sort of Life, he summed up the challenge with the following passage:
Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn't be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, and metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. A subject, a verb, and an object, perhaps a rhythm--little else, can express action. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquilizes the nerve. I should have turned to [Robert Lewis] Stevenson to learn my lesson:
"It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder and saw Mr. Shuan in the doorway crossing blades with Alan."
No similes or metaphors there, not even an adjective. But I was too concerned with "the point of view" to be aware of simpler problems, to know that the sort of novel I was trying to write, unlike a poem, was not made with words but with movement, action, character. Discrimination in one's word is certainly required, but not love of one's words…
Starting a story with only a physical description of the setting is risky, but the verbs and imagery of F. Scott Fitzgerald's opening of Tender Is the Night show that descriptive passages don't have to be static.
On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse's Hotel des Etrangers and Cannes, five miles away.
You can learn from such masters as Fitzgerald and Leonard. Take some time to read passages from some of your favorite authors and notice how they use verbs.
Then get your own story down on paper in a white heat, letting the verbs fall where and how they may. Then revise, looking at nothing but the verbs, winnowing and asking yourself, "Can I strengthen the image created by this word?" and "Is this adverb really necessary, or can I come up with one verb that does the work of several words?"
Take these steps and watch your writing take on new life, strength and possibilities.
The author of the bestseller Matador and 33 other books, Barnaby Conrad is the founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
--Posted Jan. 27, 2006