Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Rewrite 8 – Stronger Verbs for Better Stories

Strong verbs enliven your prose. Weak verbs flatten it. When I rewrite, I always find the same sad, weak verbs: look, feel, walk, know, and forms of the verb “to be.” Often, I’ve tried to bolster them with adverbs. Autocrit (a powerful application I’ll write about in a future post) highlights these for me, and I squirm when I first see the analyzed pages.
I hobble even good verbs by adding limiting words (almost, nearly, more or less, practically) or undercut their strength with –ing or have/had (I embalmed/was embalming/had embalmed). And, of course, the passive intrudes from time to time. (The dead iguana was embalmed.)
I also indulge in negatives. (I was not eager vs. I hesitated. He didn’t explain it well vs. He confused me.)
I can identify these problems without much trouble. First, I mark them. Later, I revisualize each scene, and better verbs come to mind. When I get stuck, I resort to a thesaurus, but I hate to do that. A good thesaurus will tempt me to use a verb that amuses me or that is inappropriate for my tone, character, or audience. (As a speechwriter, I rarely resort to books of quotations, for the same reason.) Finally, I make the fix.
So it’s a simple process, and a necessary part of rewriting:
·      Identify weak and weakened verbs.
·      Mark them.
·      Reimagine the scenes.
·      Make repairs (by putting in more specific, visual verbs, getting rid of adverbs and qualifying words or phrases, and/or changing the verb form).
But what happens when the verb resists replacement?
Dialogue – Your characters do not need to sound like good writers. In fact, making characters hyper-articulate can ruin your stories. I am aware of the grammatical errors my characters make, and I usually let them stand. I spot their weak verbs, too, and, when the characters naturally express themselves with those words, they stay in the manuscript.
Avoiding repetition – Except in instruction manuals and poetry, repeated words bore readers. But the story actions may demand a series of repeats. In such circumstances, something like “stroll, walk amble” may be better than “stroll, amble, amble.”
Simplicity - It is possible to make the prose too dense, to end up pummeling your reader with strong verbs. Do not make replacements that stress your reader or muddy your prose. Read the piece with the weak verb out loud. If it sounds good, it is good.
Sometimes weak verbs reveal poorly imagined scenes. This may be the biggest value to my analysis of the verbs. I may create a lot of rewriting work for me, but it makes the story stronger. And that is the main point of rewriting, isn’t it?   

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