Tangled up with verbs

A good post by PJ Parrish at Kill Zone Blog: Tangled Up With Verbs

Parrish starts off more or less like this:

You’d think this would be easy. Pick a noun, pick a verb. Repeat until you’ve written oh, about 300 pages that might resemble a novel.

But it’s not easy. Verbs are the lifeblood of what we do. The good ones juice up our writing and help readers connect with our plots and characters.

Next time someone asks me how to write a novel, I may say, Pick a noun, pick a verb. Repeat until you’ve written 300 pages that resemble a novel.

Parrish goes on:

But verbs are on my mind also because a friend, novelist Jim Fusilli, posted on Facebook a terrific article by music producer Tony Conniff called “In Praise of Bob Dylan’s Narrative Strategies…and His Verbs.”

Now, I am not a huge Dylan fan, but I do appreciate that he is a poet. (officially). And as I read Conniff’s analysis of the song “Tangled Up In Blue,” I understood how powerful the right verb in the right place can be. Take a look at just one verse of the song:

She was married when they first met
Soon to be divorced
He helped her out of a jam,
I  guess, but he used a little too much force

They drove that car as far as they could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best

She turned around to look at him
As he was walkin’ away
She said this can’t be the end
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”

Tangled up in blue.

Conniff says that most of the story is conveyed in vivid verbs — the action, drama, conflict and emotion. “The verbs tell the story,” he writes, “the story of how being with this other woman, probably for a one-night stand, led his thoughts back to the one he couldn’t forget or let go. Every verse, every chapter of the story, leads back to the same woman and the same impossible emotional place—Tangled Up In Blue.”

Now this poetry analysis is a really neat way to look at verbs, and I like the observation that the story is conveyed by the verbs. Although I think “married” here, and probably also “divorced,” are participial adjective rather than actual verbs.

Parrish goes on:

The right verb gives your story wings. The wrong verb keeps it grounded in the mundane.

Now here’s the caveat. (You know I always throw one out there.) Not every sentence you write needs a soaring verb. “Said,” as we’ve said over and over, is a supremely useful verb that, rightfully so, should just disappear into the backdrop of your dialogue. And in narrative, when you’re just moving characters through time and space, ordinary verbs like “walked,” “entered,” “looked” do the job. If you try to make every verb special, you can look pretentious and, well, like you’re trying to hard. Sometimes, smoking a cigar is just smoking a cigar.

Good advice, basically!

I’ll add an important caveat to the caveat: Said does not always disappear. If the author doesn’t take care, it can be as obtrusive as tags like “he expostulated.”

I know I have said that before. Oh, here is that post. THIS is how said can become obtrusive. My post was all about dialogue tags, not verbs. Click through and re-read this post and I think you will agree that said can be obtrusive.

Parrish has a lot more about verbs, though. He picks out a bunch of paragraphs from various books by different authors and looks at the verbs. I enjoy that — I should do something like that. Imagine how different verbs would be in Pride and Prejudice vs a hard-boiled detective novel, say.

Plus an exercise! The kind I actually like! Pick one:

Let’s use the poor old verb “walk” as a lesson here. Your character is a sophisticated spy entering the Casino de Monte-Carlo to meet the evil villain Emilio Largo. He’s not just walking in; it’s a grand entrance that sets up the next plot point. How do you describe this?

  1. He walked into the casino and paused when he spotted Largo at the baccarat table with his mistress Domino.
  2. He walked haughtily into the casino but then came to an abrupt stop when he saw Largo at the baccarat table. He had to take it slow, assess the man and the situation.
  3. He sauntered into the casino, like a king surveying his realm. But when he saw Largo at the baccarat able, he paused, and then ducked behind a palm and watched Largo, like panther eyeing his prey.
  4. He strode into the casino, but when he spotted Largo at the baccarat table, he slid behind a pillar so he could observe him without being seen.

Which do you think works best, and worst? (I think the worst is very clear.)

Click through to see which version Parrish likes best and why.

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11 thoughts on “Tangled up with verbs”

  1. Parrish should pay attention to little things, like when to use “to” and “too” as in “trying too hard” not “trying to hard”. Got my nitpicker hat on.

  2. Dylan has great lyrics, yes. So did Leonard Cohen, Canadian unofficial poet laureate. Sometimes he did it with many verbs. Other times, with just one single one:

    Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
    Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
    Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
    Dance me to the end of love
    Dance me to the end of love

  3. Kootch, I’m way less nitpicky with blog posts than actual published books. I bet you can guess why! I have made an embarrassing number of typos on blog posts, so I am not inclined to a super high standard there…

    Pete, that’s a great example of one verb! I like that a lot.

    SarahZ, no, really? Ugh. I hope Foster sues and wins.

  4. It doesn’t seem like a legally tenable position, but a lot is possible with Disney money, I guess. SFWA is trying to find out if it’s just him, or if they’re doing this to other authors as well, and raising a stink on Twitter.

  5. The Alan Dean Foster story is obscene. What kind of legal argument is “we only bought the assets not the liabilities?” Just beyond belief.

    Also: I believe it is an absolute requirement that “Dance me to the end of love” is played at Jewish wedding receptions.

  6. The business with Alan Dean Foster sounds very bad, but I’ve only heard one side of the story. Unfortunately, I suspect the story is more complicated.

  7. Rachel, a blogger who is dishing out advice about how to write has a duty to be immaculate in his own writing. We have too many writers and copy editors who are either just slack or downright ignorant about words, their meaning and usage. As an avid reader, I feel those mistakes as a dissonance and too many of those really, really detract from the story. I have given up in disgust on authors who exhibit this slackness or ignorance. I know, I know, I’m just one reader but hey, lots of authors more deserving of my reading dollars.

  8. Of the Dylan example, I notice the bolded isn’t all just verb. I don’t know the term for the form, the the phrase ‘used a little too much force’ is not a powerful verb.

    Of the examples #2 & 3 are pretty bad. the other two are both meh. #4 starts strong, but peters out. I think the basic problem is the grand entrance gets cut short, which may be the point, but it makes writing it awkward. Why not keep the entrance and deal with Largo being there already?

  9. 1 is impartial reporting on the actions, doesn’t set the tone or atmosphere, 2 is possible but a bit overdone, 3 is very overwrought, and I like 4. It’s clear and concise on the actions, and sets the tone as well, including the abrupt shift from walking in openly and full of confidence to sneaking around like a spy.

  10. I guess if part of what is intended to be shown is that the spy character isn’t as good as he thinks he is the grand entrance cut short works well. From the introductory stuff, before the examples, I had the impression the scene involved someone actually competent on his way to meet character B. When he makes an entrance and suddenly decides to hide from his target it just doesn’t make sense. I’d expect a competent spy to either come in quietly to scope things out, or having (for whatever reason) decided to be grand and attention getting, stick with it and observe the reactions that gets. All the examples make the supposed ‘sophisticated spy’ look a lot less competent and quick thinking than plausible for survival. in fiction, at least. Real life has other rules.

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