Forging Stories 4: Hammering Things Together

Writers are expected to know the parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and articles. If nouns and verbs are the basic building materials of the sentence, adjectives and adverbs act as ornamentation intended to enhance. Occasionally, writers fail to use these parts as they were intended.

We laugh about one aspect this phenomenon — verbing — in which a word such as “weird,” moves from the noun column into the verb column; i.e., “Don’t weird me out.”

There’s also such a thing as “nouning” in which the opposite occurs; i.e., “Let’s have a meet about that.” We shake our heads and wonder if the speaker was just too lazy to be bothered with a two-syllable word: “meeting.”

It’s less amusing when it makes a story difficult to follow.

The parts of speech that seem to suffer the most abuse are verbs and adverbs. Verbs have tenses. This can make them a bit tricky, even for seasoned writers. Try telling a story in present tense (as one of the characters in my fifth novel, MAGIC TIME: ANGELFIRE does), and see what happens when you hit a flashback.

While you needn’t have rote recall of the various verb forms (future, present, past, conditional future, past perfect, transitive, etc.), you do need to develop an ear for their proper use.

Here’s an example:

“The Moors turned northward, crossing the Caucasus. Without rest, they’ve pursued up to Siberia’s plains.”

This passage mixes past simple (turned) and present perfect (have pursued) verbs. It also contains a misuse of a transitive verb — that is, a verb that requires an object. In this case, the verb “pursued” requires simply that the Moors must pursue something.

At one point in a tale I critiqued for a writer’s conference, an Evil Emperor lambasted the protagonist with the following outburst.

“Your powers hold little authority in my realm,” Emperor Shen scolded.

Aside from the fact that the pronouncement was a little weak in context (it was supposed to be the beginning of a rant), the word “scolded” connotes school teachers and miffed mothers, not evil emperors with life-or-death power over the other characters. In this context, it’s not merely a weak verb, it’s the wrong verb.

The alarming number of ways you can misuse, abuse, or overuse adverbs is reputed to have caused Mark Twain to exclaim: “If you see an adverb, kill it!” I can’t verify this, but I tend to agree, though only in part. Some adverbs are not only useful, but necessary. As with any other part of speech, they must be used appropriately. Twain also famously said that a writer should “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

The next example is a sentence spoken by the heroine of the manuscript cited above as she hears the screams and wails of the Evil Emperor’s torture victims:

“I wish I could stop that,” she said crossly.

Crossly? When I first read this passage, I wasn’t sure whether the heroine was supposed to be annoyed with the Emperor’s victims for whining about their torture, or was in petulant agony over their plight.

This last example illustrates two more misuses of the writers’ tools that invariably weaken the fabric of the finished story.
Here’s the original passage:

“A pillar standing immediately adjacent to the hatch had several notches in its surface, notches which looked well worn from ancient use by men of yore.”

Did you picture a pillar standing next to some sort of sealed, metal doorway in a wall? I did, because a “hatch” is an aperture usually found on a ship and the word “adjacent” indicates they are side-by-side.

Yet, there were “notches” in the pillar, the purpose of which was a mystery. (Did the ancients leave a notch beside the door every time they entered?) That is, until I read further and realized the “notches” were hand-holds so “men of yore” could climb up the pillar and enter the “hatch” which, it turned out, was a trapdoor cut into the ceiling.

The writer used the wrong noun for a key device in the scene, thereby misleading the reader. He also used the wrong adjective to describe the relationship of the device to its environment.

The second problem with this sentence is that two-thirds of it is dedicated to describing the age of the notches without, I might add, doing anything to clear up the mystery of their use.

In this case, less is more:

“A pillar descended from the ceiling next to the aperture, its surface marred by a series of age-worn hand holds.”

This sentence is not only more concise and active, it more clearly describes the scene and tells the reader that this secret entrance is old and much-used.

Whether the writer uses too many words or the wrong words, the effect is the same: it distracts the reader and forces him to slow down or even re-read passages in an effort to extract meaning. The reader stops to comprehend the use of the word in the context the writer establishes; the story is paused; the mood is broken; the sense of story is lost; the reader is distanced.

When I craft a paragraph, I go back and make certain that I’m:

  • Using active, energetic language
  • Choosing the right words for the task
  • Using the parts of speech as they were intended so that my sentences make sense to the reader
  • Stripping out unnecessary words

And while I’m at it, I minimize Leech Words. These include like and as, feel, once again, any more, never before, almost, very, and really.

Why? Because they add extra weight to the sentences and paragraphs, which can slow down your prose and distance the reader … and because I feel as if these very addictive words will almost always suck energy from your prose really quickly. Sort of like leeches.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Somerset Maugham:

Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.

Are these words always evil?

No. Sometimes a writer wants to slow the prose down to establish character, mood, pacing, etc. But I think whatever words we use, we need to use them consciously and with an awareness of their effect.

But back to our original metaphor about blacksmiths and horseshoes. A good blacksmith wants to make horseshoes that will last—that are a good fit, durable, and stylish. The best way to ensure that your horseshoes are the best horseshoes you can hammer out is to learn the use of your tools.

A good blacksmith also knows that any single element of his craft is useless alone. It’s only by introducing the iron to the fire with sufficient muscle and craft, that he can create horseshoes.

Similarly, every wordsmith needs to understand that the elements of her craft do not stand alone. It’s only by combining inspiration, passion, discipline, and craft with the raw materials of writing that sterling prose emerges from the forge.


Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is the author of:



Forging Stories 4: Hammering Things Together — 3 Comments

  1. I ought to tattoo some of this stuff on the inside of my eyelids!

    Recently I’ve become aware of how Leech Words (great description) slow down the flow of prose. If a sentence begins, “And then, instead, he found himself…” all those words create “dead time” before the we get to the meat of the sentence. When the plot is leaping along, that’s the last thing I want.

    On the other hand, sometimes I want to moderate the pace of the action, but a far better way to do that is to vary sentence structure, including complex syntax and polysyllabic words. Like this one.

  2. You don’t actually have to know the parts of speech by name to write. It does, however, make it a lot harder to talk about style if you don’t.

    Me, the thing I find most likely to weaken a verb is an auxiliary verb. Nice things, auxiliary verbs, if you want to add a subtle shade of meaning, but most prose could stand to be strengthened more than it needs to be made subtle.

  3. Sooooo, this semester I’m TAing for Linguistics 101, and the first thing we did in the syntax section was work on identifying parts of speech. This is not as easy as it sounds. To make it even more interesting, I gave them ten sentences to mark up that were all first lines of novels.

    Each sentence was entirely clean of Leech Words, but used complex, intriguing, inventive syntax, breaking the rules in beautiful ways.

    The first step is clean and tidy. The second step is reinvent.