Monday 28 July 2014

Don't Overstuff Your Verbs: Unpack

There are time when it’s obvious an adverb is unnecessary. 

He ran quickly to the phone. It’s redundant to have quickly in there, running already implies speed, so you should cut it out. He ran to the phone. 

Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to use an adverb (no, really , it is). An adverb is a modifier, and if you’re modifying the verb in an unexpected way that changes the meaning of the verb it can be a useful tool. Examples: 

She smiled sadly.
His arm was partially severed.
He whispered loudly. 

But most times the adverb is modifying the verb in a way that there is already another word for. Examples:

He ran really quickly – He sprinted
He held the baby carefully – He cradled the baby
He angrily shut the door – He slammed the door
He ate the food hungrily – He crammed food into his mouth.

The usual advice is to replace the verb/adverb with the stronger verb that says exactly what you mean. The problem with these strong verbs is that their meaning is so specific they always pop up in the same context.

People are always slamming phones, rummaging in handbags, swatting flies. And the effect is to make these words and sentences easy to understand but hard to feel. Like clichés they slide off the surface of your brain without really penetrating very much. In fact they become clichés.

If you look at the examples listed above, some are more commonly used than others, but they all have a degree of familiarity about them. You have to look at the strong verbs in your own writing and decide for yourself if the context is one you see the particular strong verb in a lot.

The way to prevent this from happening is to take the strong verb and unpack it. Break it down into its most basic step. A man slamming down a telephone, what is the look in his eyes, the shape of the lines round his mouth, the colour of his hand on the phone, the sound of the handset landing in its cradle? Then take the key moments and build a picture of the action for the reader to fall into.

This makes the moment longer, but it is hard to resist becoming engaged within that moment. This is an example of minimalist writing, where the aim is not to use the fewest words possible, but to breakdown story into its basic building blocks, often employing more words, not less.

At the same time, this technique also implies that there is more to the scene than appears to be the case, otherwise why go into so much detail? And indeed there better be more to it. If a man picks up the phone to find a salesman trying to sell him insurance, and he slams down the phone in extreme detail, then goes back to merrily doing what he was doing before and the phone call has no other role in the story, it’s going to seem a bizarre thing to have focused on so intently.

The thing about minimalist writing is that the small things are always about more than they appear. A woman taking a bath is about her failed suicide attempt, a man playing basketball is about him cheating on his wife, or whatever, so this takes care of itself. In other types of writing it is important to not let unpacking turn into hoarding. Action, movement, purpose, these are things to bear in mind.

The goal in unpacking strong verbs is to connect the reader with the character through their actions. First the character has to be involved in what they’re doing, then the reader can become involved. So if Johnny loves Mildred, revealing this while he sits in his bedroom with a dopey grin on his face is not involving anyone through action. Verbs denoting emotions are some of the worst offenders when it comes to verbs acting like clichés. And these are the one you most want to impact the reader, you want them to feel it.

To unpack these verbs you have to put the characters onto the field of play. What are the individual steps that demonstrate Johnny’s feelings? Describing the look in his eyes or the beating of his heart is static and not very engaging. In order to unpack verbs, you need actions, movement, purpose. What situation can you put him in that will allow his love for Mildred to come out so that we see it for ourselves?

What does he do for her? How does he act around her? What does he say about her? What is the action that illustrates the emotion?  What are the action verbs involved? Unpack that.

So, as well as breaking down emotions into actions, unpacking also forces the writer to show not tell, another pillar of minimalism.

The key here is to look at important moments that you want to have the greatest impact on the reader, and then unpack them so the reader and character experience them in tandem.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
This post first appeared in May 2011.


Unknown said...

I see what you are saying. This is harder then it sounds. I am sure with a lot of practice extra verbs can be taken out of writings.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That is harder than it sounds. But it's a lot like showing rather than telling.

mooderino said...

@Lilith - it's very satisfying finding an original way of saying a familiar action.

@Alex - it is harder but it also helps you see the scene happen in your head.

Unknown said...

Great post!

Some adverbs are subjective and an author might assume that it is clear what is being conveyed when it isn't very clear at all. For example:

He whispered loudly.

The adverb "loudly" is subjective. One person might consider it loud and another not so much. A person might be whispering in a hospital waiting room like so...

John leaned in toward Sally and whispered, "Do you have anymore mints? The garlic from lunch is sticking with me."

The old lady sitting across from John directs a comment to her husband, "You wouldn't know by the smell of his breath."

The husband responds, "Huh? What dear?"

Poor example, but you see how an adverb could be viewed differently dependent upon who is witness to it. I'd rather these things be shown instead. It's much more work, but a better reader experience I think.

Denise Covey said...

Strong verbs can remove a reader from the story, when they're just too jolting, unusual, don't quite fit. This is a tricky one. I agree you don't need adverbs when you're already saying someone is running, but there are different degrees of running, too, that might need to be qualified. I notice most best-selling authors don't mind using an adverb or two or twenty-three...


Murees Dupè said...

This is something I am guilty of. Your post was very informative and made me see the error of my ways. Thank you.

mooderino said...

@Diane - there is a skill to finding the exact right adverb that says it perfectly, but you don't see it very often.

@Denise - I don't believe all adverbs are bad, but they can be poorly used and often are.

@Murees - happy to help.

Unknown said...

I had to really think about this post, since I find most descriptions of eyes, heartbeat, or hands, etc. can be as cliche as the verbs that are used too often in certain situations. Thanks for making me ponder new things!

Gina Gao said...

This is such a great post! I like how informative this is.

mooderino said...

@Lexa - focusing on minutia like facial expressions tends to be another way of telling, you have to focus on what's happening and let the emotions come out of that.

@Gina - thanks.

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