Sunday, 29 May 2011

Don't Overstuff Your Verbs — Unpack

Having received some interest in Minimalism (mentioned in my last post), I thought I’d share this minimalist writing technique for making verbs more active and immediate. It is an approach I picked up from The Cult Writer’s Workshop, part of Chuck Palahniuk’s Official Fansite (this is a paid membership online workshop that costs about $40/year. It was certainly worth the money back when I was a member. Any current active members, please let me know how things are going).

Unpacking Verbs

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. It also reflects the true nature of minimalism, which 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 get him to switch phone plans, 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.

Working on a new Chapter One: Harry Potter 1

Please follow me on twitter: @mooderino

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Unknown said...

This is without a doubt one of THE most straight-forward and useful explanations of verb use I've ever read! Really and truly awesome!


Brent Wescott said...

I agree. Good stuff here. I'm bookmarking it so I can use it with my high school students next year.

Anonymous said...

Show, don't tell. Show, don't tell, Show, don't tell.

That's the (great) advice that every writing student has heard, but you explained it really well. :O)

McKenzie McCann said...

I am a supporter of telling, IF it's 1st person, and most of what is out there these days is.

If I'm reading a book in 1st person, I like the character to talk to me. I like it when they tell me their thoughts like, "I liked the way she moved as she sipped her water" or "He said in such a way that made me want to run up to him, hit him upside the head and scream "FEEL SOMETHING YOU IDIOT.""

Telling is like similes; it takes a lot of finesse to do it right, but when you do, it's priceless.

Laoch of Chicago said...

Very useful explanation.

mooderino said...

@EJ — thanks, man.

@Brent — excellent, finally the access to young minds I've been looking for...

@word nerd — cheers, glad it made some kind of sense.

@McKenzie — my only real rule is make it interesting. How you go about that is up to you. But you should bear in mind that as a writer your view of a character is different to a reader's. It's the difference sharing a taxi with your best mate, listening to what they've been up to, and sharing a taxi with a stranger who won't stop talking about themselves.

Some people like to hear others go on and on, personally I would jump out of a moving car.

When you have the insight into a character's soul the way a writer does it adds weight to their feelings that the reader does not have. When they say, I hate Jack, you know exactly what that means, a reader doesn't. The reader may decide to assume, and you as a reader may do that, but there are more powerful techniques available.

Not that you can't sell it if you tell it, but a demonstration will always trump a personal recommendation.

@Laoch — very kind of you to say so.

Jake Henegan said...

This is interesting. It's even a combination of the show don't tell and no adverbs rules. Only, not so constricting.

So if I understand this correctly, every time you would want to describe an (important) emotion that a character feels, instead of using one verb (possibly loaded with adverbs), you divide it up into the various different stages of that emotion and thus 'show' it to the reader.

I will definitely keep this in mind. (I often have the need to put in adverbs to explain things. Perhaps unpacking is the better way)

Sophia said...

I find myself toying around with how to make a story of a man playing basketball about cheating on his wife. Thanks for that. /sarcasm This is a really interesting post, though. I already knew about not trying to plump up a lacklustre verb by adding an adverb but the idea of unpacking in general was new to me. Thanks for sharing, Mooderino!

Also did you know the internet has a surprising wealth of recordings of basketball sounds? Weird.
- Sophia.

Ellie Garratt said...

I have to agree with E. J. Wesley - I feel I've learnt more about verbs in reading this post than I have reading several writing books. Thank you!

Ellie Garratt said...

Thanks for this post. It has brought me up short as I think my MC rummages in her handbag at some stage. :O)

Talei said...

I definitely need to unpack some verbs in my manuscript. Great tips here! Thank you for a very informative post!

Alleged Author said...

Great post on how to rid wips of adverbs!

Southpaw said...

Great tips. Great for scene development.

mooderino said...

@Jake - yes, but in order to break it down into smaller verbs you need to convert the emotion into an action. This could just be facial expressions, but anger as shown by someone picking up a glass and throwing it at a wall is more immediate than describing getting hot in the face and grimacing.

@Sophia - I did not know that. Keep an eye out for my new book 'The NBA ruined my Wife'.

@Ellie - my aim is to win over as many people as pssible to my way of thinking, and then have a mass uprising and in the confusion I'm going to steal the internet, which I believe is kept at Bill Gates' house.

@Madeleine - hard to find anywhere else to rummage these days. That's progress for you.

@Talei - thank you for reading it.

@AA - I hope you also recognised that not all adverbs are evil.

@Holly - cheers!

Thanks for all the comments. Please follow me on twitter if you are that way inclined: @mooderino

Halli Gomez said...

Thanks for the tip. I am always aware of adverbs when I read and when I write. Since I started writing and reading tips, I am much more aware of them in my reading and understand how unnecessary they can be.

dolorah said...

Yeah, I see the redundency in my own writing sometimes. When I'm writing it, it makes perfect sense, but when I re-read, yuck. Guess I have to be in a different zone to get the words out on a word doc.

Thanks for this clarification.


Tatum Flynn said...

Brilliant post, as ever, thank you! And look forward to the Harry Potter analysis.

Car Title Loans said...

I absolutely hate when people over-use adjectives and verbs. Sometimes, less truly is more. Love the examples to use instead of word-jumble. It makes the sentences look a lot sharper.


MTeacress said...

Well said. I hear this advice all the time but not as comprehensive. Thanks. :)

Michael Di Gesu said...

What a great way you described the use of power verbs in a new and refreshing way.

I always leave your blog with new information that is always so helpful. Thank you Mood.

Matthew MacNish said...

I can't believe I wasn't following your blog OR your Twitter account.

Oh well, at least I've fixed both now.

Hart Johnson said...

totally had never considered this angle. I like strong verbs, but you're right about many of their uses becoming cliches. I use a lot of dialog and much less description, but I like this reworking of those cliched actions.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments, glad people are finding it useful. Not that it's the only way to write effectively, but always good to have another arrow in the quiver. Cheers.

And don't forget to follow on twitter: @mooderino

Suze said...

I don't like reading posts about how to write. There are a million out there and they really scratch hell out of my nerves. But I liked this one. And I loved the minimalist feel of the chaotic image you posted with it. (Love the overall design oy our blog, generally-- first-time visitor.)

Back to the post, one of the things I relish doing as I write is to find Just The Right Word. In using words to give the reader a sense of visual space without overwhelming, I like to write out the big, long sentence we're all guilty of as scribes and then hack it back. In the process of hacking away the extraneous, I find either the word I want in the pile of leaves, or that some tingling association lights up in my brain and causes my awareness to leap to the word I was really searching for.

Writing can be its own strange and beautiful voyage. Truthfully. (Did I need that last modifier?)

I'll be back to read more.


Carla said...

This is a really fabulous post. When I think of a minimalist approach, I think of the shortest or fastest way possible. I like how you explain that it's actually the simplest way of saying something while still moving the action forward. It engages the reader. Brilliant!


MISH said...

This is an excellent post . I liked the bit about the strong verb becoming cliched ~ I hadn't thought about it in that way , yet it makes so much sense ... and you've presented a fresh way of approaching this by "unpacking" the verb in a show & tell manner ... thanks for these gems !

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