In a previous post, I brought you the story of Slim, the verb as action hero. Today, I want to circle the wagons again, with one more pass at the parts of speech, before we slip into something more comfortable – the rhythm of your writing.
Let’s start with a pop quiz. If the following sentences were sports cars, which would cross the finish line first? And which would never make it out of first gear? Remember: action verbs take you down river, while modifiers divert the flow – arresting movement (and sometimes even reversing it). Watch for motion in these sentences:
- Still far off, a tiny blue flicker bobbed and danced along the horizon in the dusty heat of July, growing steadily into the familiar shape of Grandpa’s old, blue Ford, which, like its owner, was something of a relic.
- The ring – a sizeable affair of sapphires and encrusted pearls orbiting a generous diamond – hijacked the agenda for Tuesday’s garden club meeting as word spread that Prissy Maynard Benson had returned from her honeymoon.
- Rain fell in shards that night: it woodpecked the roof tiles and splatted against the windows, colliding and bouncing noisily in rivulets down the muddy riverbank.
It’s important to note that verbs don’t have to be hyperactive to get the job done. The storm depicted in the third sentence is a good example. There is uninterrupted movement here, flowing easily from the sky to the river. While the action is not race-car fast, it draws us into the scene with a steady drumbeat. Modifying phrases – like “in shards” and “down the muddy riverbank” – attend three carefully chosen active verbs and 2 participles. I’ve served up a side of only one adjective – muddy – and one adverb – bouncing noisily.
Conversely, the first two sentences are weighted down with description. What starts as a moving sentence about Grandpa’s Ford ultimately leaves him baking in the noonday sun while the author stops to offer an irrelevant simile. This awkward transition from action to analysis is what we want to avoid. Be careful that your descriptive choices serve your story rather than detract from it. When put to good use, however, slowing the pace to take a closer look – as in the scrutiny of Mrs. Benson’s wedding ring – can be a necessary (and purposeful) diversion.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that writing must always conjur motion. In fact, our deepest meanings are unearthed when action grinds to a halt, when the reader is allowed into the inner sanctum to discover where the story has taken him. My point is simply to be deliberate about your choices, and apply this “stop action” convention sparingly. Here’s a great article I found by author and writing coach K. M. Weiland that illustrates this distinction .
What about you – have you ever indulged in a juicy description only to find that it falls flat in the context of your narrative? As much fun as it is to portray the physical world around you, expression for its own sake can become a navel-gazing exercise that derails your reader. Try anchoring your account to the theme of your writing and watch its significance springboard. So store up those word pictures. Keep them under lock and key until just the right moment. I have held onto some of my better metaphors for months (even years) until they found their resonant home as an echo of a story’s larger meaning. But more on that next time!