Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

The Craft of Writing

Rogue verbs

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog: When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Here is an illustrative snippet. Click through to read the whole thing:

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

And here is a portion of the critique:

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. …

Now, what do you all think? Are there “too many” verbs or “too many” strong verbs? Which of these paragraphs, if any, stand out for you as having non-great verb use? All of them?

Let’s take these paragraphs one at a time:

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

I would say that this paragraph is basically fine. I would remove one of those verbs. Which one? Read that paragraph and zap exactly one verb. Which did you choose?

I took out “hissing.” I did that for two reasons. Three.

First, I’ve never been hissed at by a cat in a bookstore and I don’t expect cats to hiss at me, so it seems weird for these cats to hiss. Second, she shouldn’t be swiping at the cats anyway, so I’d take out that whole phrase. Third, “hissing” just sounds wrong and awkward in a way that the other verbs don’t. I can’t say exactly why. It just sounds wrong somehow.

Next:

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Which verbs would you take out? Any? Are the verbs the actual problem?

Here are the words and phrases that bother me:

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

The verbs aren’t the problem! Over-the-top phrasing is the problem! This isn’t purple writing where adjectives and adverbs are overused. The description here is exaggerated in a different way, and awkward to boot.

Blood-curdling screams are intensely cliched. My personal advice is: never describe anything at all as blood-curdling, especially not screams. Also, who in heaven’s name screams at the sudden appearance of the shop owner? Doesn’t one expect to encounter staff or owners in a shop? What a twit this protagonist is.

I’m tired of men leering in fiction. Stop describing men as leering! It is getting to be an absolutely cliched bit of description, as bad as blood-curdling screams. Want to signal that the guy is not nice? “Leering,” poof, job done. Except it’s not done! Stop that and describe something more substantive or at least less cliched.

“His girth topped his height by twice” is terribly awkward. Why not say something more like, “He seemed at first glance twice as wide as he was tall”?

“Nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his shirt” is also terribly awkward. Nearly a foot of what? his girth? What an odd thing to say. His girth peeked? This just doesn’t work.

“deeming him the shopkeeper” is also awkward. Deeming, really? But it’s not just the verb, it’s the whole thing.

Next paragraph:

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

What is wrong here? Not just the verbs.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

It’s just all so exaggerated, especially “gnashed menacingly.” Just as screams really ought not be blood-curdling, teeth ought not gnash.

It’s not that there are too many verbs, or too many active verbs. It’s that there are too many awkward sentences and way too much exaggerated, cliched description. The writer is trying too hard to be vivid, and probably a touch humorous, and the phrases start to trip over themselves — or so it seems to me.

IMO, the take-home message shouldn’t be “use fewer vivid verbs.” It should be “use clear language that works.” But that’s harder advice to give, and much harder to follow.

If it were me, I’d be inclined to say, “Read something by Robin McKinley and see how she uses language. Then try to do it like that.” Someone who is going overboard in any way would probably do well to read The Blue Sword and get a feel for simple, plain writing that draws the reader into the story and does not call attention to itself.

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1 Comment Rogue verbs

  1. Mary Catelli

    The last one also has the problem that his hair is not being done at the same time. It’s description, whereas the rest is action, which forces people to switch gears in the middle of the sentence.

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