EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 13: Kill Bad Verbs Before They Kill Your Story

Sample paragraph: I saw Hal coming toward me across the office commons, waving. “What did the boss say?” he screeched.

I shook my head and waved him away. “I don’t want to talk about it, Hal.”

“Oh, Ron,” he squealed. “Please tell me he didn’t fire you!”

oOo

Do the verbs screeched and squealed help build up the atmosphere of this scene or disrupt it?

What if I tell you the screecher is forty-something, college-educated and in upper management and that his normal speaking voice is a rich baritone?

I don’t know about you, but I see an owl in a three piece suit.

Words that work against characterization disrupt the reader’s sense of the story. If your beautiful princess screeches her dialogue and cackles when she laughs, you inadvertently paint a picture of her that you may not intend to. If you want her to seem a bit whacky or have her provide comic relief, then by all means have her screech and cackle away. But make sure her actions enhance rather than contradict her character.

The important thing is to remember that strong verbs are your best tool for communicating about your characters and about the atmosphere of a given scene. You can use the most luscious adjectives in the thesaurus, but if you have your ethereal, angelic, silver-eyed princess respond to the hero’s’ attempt at humor by cackling, the reader will wonder why you didn’t follow up by having him gape in disappointment and disbelief or involuntarily imagine her laying an egg.

Exercise: Rewrite the short scene above so that Hal’s excitement or trepidation is clear and present, without him screeching and squealing it.

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EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 13: Kill Bad Verbs Before They Kill Your Story — 4 Comments

  1. I guessed Hal was flustered even before the big guy opened his mouth. Just watching him puff his red-faced way across the room was almost enough, but when he said, ‘What did the boss say?’ In a voice that sounded more castrato, than the usual rich baritone, it was confirmed.
    However, now wasn’t the time for an explanation, especially when he was in such a dither so I replied, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Hal.’
    I hoped I’d placated him. It didn’t work. I wouldn’t have believed it possible but I’m sure his voice raised another octave when he said. ‘Oh, Ron… don’t tell me they sacked you?’

  2. I assumed, for lack of any other information, that Hal was the sort of person that squealed, screeched, and otherwise over-reacted. They’re terrific character delineators–unless that’s not the character you meant to delineate.

  3. Bob: Very good — you went with using the “bad verbs” to work against type. This results in a humorous scene.

    Your approach makes lemonade out of … well, you know.

    Mad: My point exactly. The writer who wrote this little scene (names and circumstances changed to protect the innocent) meant it to be deadly serious, taut with suspense and dark emotions. He meant to illustrate this through the use of verbs he thought indicated heightened emotion.

    Well … they sorta do. 🙂

    This particular writer was very plugged into film and did little reading. Hence, his concept of heightened emotion was visual and aural. In writing scenes like the one in the example, he was translating what he saw in the movies he watched as indicating excitement or distress onto the page.

  4. Just read that your writer was trying to be deadly serious. I didn’t see that at all in the piece and although there was high emotion it didn’t strike me as if fear motivated Hal but exaggeration. As Madeline said he seemed prone to overreaction. However, that I suppose illustrates your point, that the verbs used threw the reader off.