The Art of the Verb Choice

Among the struggles that authors have during the revision process, the most taxing is finding the right word in a specific sentence. The degree of difficulty an author experiences depends on the degree of perfection she demands from herself. Although I could write dozens of posts on this topic, I’ll start with a basic fix.

It concerns common verbs such as “move.” You want to describe a character moving through space. In that case, “move” is an umbrella term that comprises many more specific verbs. A profusion comes to mind: walk, advance, proceed, march, etc. How do you determine which one fits? 

The first consideration is frequency of usage. How many times have you used “walk,” for instance? Chances are, you have used it more than any other verb of moving. You don’t want to pile on, because those words become stale. That means your prose as a whole is more stale. 

You then advance to: shade of meaning. How is the character moving? A person who marches connotes perhaps a strict, upright individual. Yet it can also point out that the person is angry. Does that fit the context? Maybe you want to pick “advance,” because that can be made to seem threatening. Or, “proceed” is more utilitarian, performing a piece of business. When you stop to think about what you really mean, a more specific verb adds texture. A character would “circulate” at an art opening, for example.

If you try out a heap of words and you’re still dissatisfied, you may need to go beyond the concept of moving altogether. What is being accomplished by the act of moving, anyway? If he is circulating, that adds to a reader’s knowledge. If he feels he’s being watched as he walks down an alley, the act of movement could be crucial. Yet so many times the sentence is merely lazy thinking. You move the character from Point A to Z because you’re trying to picture the scene in your mind. Once you’ve written the scene, though, don’t you know what is happening?

The movement might be transformed into an act of desire. “She was so done with this place” could be followed by a paragraph starting with her pressing the ignition button in her car. Linked to the last thought, she could have another: “She felt like she could fly away forever.” You’re using paragraph structure to omit the need for transport.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for verbs. When you see one of the omnibus variety, such as “see,” stop to think through the options you have. If only a few come to mind, check a thesaurus. If nothing feels right still, the problem is the act of seeing. Chuck it altogether and convey the act a different way.

“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”
—Mary Oliver

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Expanding Your Evil Empire

A novel has competing dynamics as its plot builds. Most of the story consists of interactions between characters, occurring in one locale or another. Yet the implications of these interactions define the larger realm that an author has staked out. A common example is the struggle of a hero to stop a human devil from taking over the world.

Such wider implications are essential to certain genres such as thrillers, historical/political novels, and science fiction/fantasy. If the stakes are not large enough, the reader may feel that his participation in the elaborate game play involved in such works wasn’t worth the effort. Oh, so she only won the prize of dogcatcher of Idiota, Idaho? After all that?

Crafting a struggle with titanic overtones does not require much work. That’s because so much of the novel is taken up with private interactions. A hero still has to overcome a series of personal-size obstacles on his journey. Expanding the scope of ultimate ambitions can be fashioned via several methods.

One way is to craft a prism whereby the pervasive reach of the evil force is taken for granted by everyone. Readers will accept these reports as proof that the evil empire—that you have constructed out of whole cloth—should be feared. Any steps the protagonist takes need to factor in how it will disturb the evil force. Any military strategies by opposing forces need to include consideration of the evil force’s lethal capabilities. Everyone will go ahead and act in their local sphere—but you have added a looming shadow over the proceedings.

The heroine does not have to oppose this evil directly throughout the book. Yet at a minimum you do need to provide proof of concept occasionally. Merely bruiting the mention of evil goes only so far. Several overt acts, spaced periodically over the course of the book, can demonstrate the empire’s power. If their destruction escalates sequentially, the anticipation of the climax is augmented.

At the end, this building needs to culminate in some major conflagration, involving a large number of the enemy forces. The bigger they are, the harder they fall—but the reader needs to be immersed in the action. That is the payoff for all of his attention.

Exercise: If you have already written a draft, review the manuscript for any places that the evil force can be inserted, even if only in an ominous mention. Is there any one character whose life could be more affected by the evil? Proceed from mentions to incidents, and then have characters discuss the incidents fearfully. Soon the aura of evil will pervade the story.

“But it is the same with man as with the tree. The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep—into evil.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright @2017, John Paine


Make Your Subplot Scenes Count

Each character attracts the reader’s attention. That is both a blessing and a curse for a writer. By the amount of coverage a character receives, you can develop cascading rhythms that favor her. That is a blessing if you want to build up to a peak at a given point in a novel. Yet it is a curse if you expect the reader to be as interested in another character merely because you place his scene in the middle of your cresting sequence devoted to her. Why should the reader be interested in that character (that not-her character)?

This problem can become acute when you are staging competing plot lines. Let's say Henrietta gets three chapters in a row, totalling 20 pages. Then Stan gets his turn—for a chapter that lasts 2 pages. Now stop at look at that math. As a reader, here’s my experience. I have to switch gears. Stan, not Henrietta, is the point-of-view character now. I first have to remember who Stan is. Don’t laugh, I frequently have to check the list of characters that I compile while reading a manuscript. Second, I have to get into Stan’s head. I have barely done that before, poof!, the scene is over. I’m left scratching my head: why did we bother switching away from Henrietta, whom I was enjoying, for this jokester who can’t even carry a decent-length scene?

Spending 20 pages with a character creates dominance. That’s who the reader wants to stay with now—because that’s what you’ve told the reader. Depending on how long a major character dominates a novel, you need to make sure that your subplot scenes have some heft to them. The reader needs to recalibrate his intellectual/emotional compass because of the long intervals in between the subplot scenes. That’s why I advise writers to consider a minimum length for a subplot scene. Depending on how long your normal chapters are, I would shoot for 5-10 pages. That not only allows the reader time to switch gears, but then become interested in whichever plot development you are laying out in that scene. Something with true dramatic weight has to happen if you’re spending five whole pages on it. That in turn will force you to do your duty by that subplot character: develop a substantial plot line for him. He shouldn’t be thrown in merely for a change of pace. He should be contributing enough to the book that we are rewarded by turning to him.

Exercise: Create a four-column chart and mark the name of a chosen subplot character at the top. Make the heading of the first column “Ch” for chapter number. The second column is “Pages” for the number of pages in the scene. The third is “Character” for the point-of-view character in the scene.  Finally, the fourth column is “Interval” or the number of pages that have elapsed since that character ran a scene. Compare Column 2 with Column 4. Do you think that character is really holding his own?

“The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
—John Steinbeck

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.