I’m writing a short story at the moment, and it’s reached the point where I’m looking over the words themselves. Part of the story is narrated by a precise kind of a person, who uses (as per last week’s post) nouns—or nominal phrases—that are specific rather than general: Langstroth boxes, not beehives; Gladstone bag rather than suitcase.
Nouns reflect a person’s point of view, but verbs tend to be a writer’s contribution, since a first-person narrator is more likely to say I went quietly than to say, I crept. The writer, however, is free to use the full panoply of verbs, milking them for every drop of meaning. So instead of writing, for example (from the short story):
I went in, shut the door, and turned on my torch.
the writer needs verbs that tell just what is going on with the action. Is the person furiously taking refuge? In that case—
I stormed inside, slammed the door, and slapped around the walls for the switch before just yanking out my torch and shoving it on.
Or is the person’s behavior surreptitious?
I stepped to the right, eased the door shut, and thumbed my hand-torch on.
Notice, too, that the noisy example feels as if just getting inside the room is itself the goal, whereas the last version seems to be moving towards something else: the reader feels that the person is closing himself quietly inside the room for a reason.
Now, I am not as phobic of modifiers as writers are urged to be in these post-Hemingway days. I see nothing wrong in the occasional adverb, she said coyly. But modifying a weak verb is never as effective as using a stronger verb in the first place. Which makes more noise?
Close the door loudly.
Slam the door.
Move up there on your belly.
I dislike him intensely.
I loathe him.
This is not to suggest that every verb in a piece of writing needs to glare at the reader. More often than not, the writer would just as soon leave the verbs more or less invisible, allowing the focus to move forward without distraction—particularly with speech markers in dialogue, when “he said” should only occasionally give way to “he replied” or “he noted”, and rarely—rarely!—be replaced by hissing or growling or muttering.
But when a scene or a piece of dialogue doesn’t seem quite as interesting as it needs to be—and particularly when that scene is key or climactic, when it needs to be amped up in the reader’s attention—take a look at the verbs. Weeding out the modifiers and replacing them with power verbs might be all that’s needed.
Which, as I said, is what I’ll get back to doing now.