Writers can throw around the terms used to describe interesting language – sensory images, unusual syntax, well-developed descriptions, and vibrant verbs. But incorporating these into writing and preserving the flow is a challenge. Recently I worked with some nascent writers trying to conjure vibrant verbs to replace the old, tired, common ones.
Actually, the common verbs are quite useful (which is why they are common). Did you ever try to carry on a conversation and not use some form of have, get, go, do or say? As the first exercise the participants had to tackle finding vivid variations of the past tense of “said” the past tense of say.
When I write dialogue I am acutely aware of how many times I have employed “said.” However, it interferes with the flow of the dialog if I have to keep stopping to search for alternate words. My own solution was to create a handy list of words for “said” that indicated basic emotions–timid, angry, scornful, happy, excited, surprised, scared and sad. Unfortunately “screamed” describes multiple emotions and using it every time it popped up in my list was equivalent to constantly crying wolf. To be honest, when I write I end up using “said” more than anything else. I’ve heard readers don’t notice this, and I hope that’s true.
In the second exercise the participants had to replace “walk” in the sentence “He walked across the room.” The new verbs had to express walking in a manner that indicated the person was slow, fast, in pain, exhausted and overjoyed. The tendency is to use adverbs or metaphors. I had to repeatedly explain the idea was to exchange the verb, using one word only. There is a pleasure in economy of writing, using few words even if it does sacrifice the richness of description. When one came up with “He walked across the room, sliding like a slimy snail.” I had to admit it was creative and worked just as well as “He slithered as across the room.”
In the end we basically performed charades. I asked a volunteer to walk slowly across the room while others yelled out single words to describe what she was doing. They managed to come up with crept, crawled, shuffled and slunk. As we moved on to the remaining verbs, I realized that when a person walks slowly or with pain, it looks very similar. They still managed to come up with variations such as stumble, stagger, and totter. My favorite verb replacement “He slouched across the room” sounded more like the walk of an self-conscious teenager, a category that definitely fit some of my participants.
In the end, everyone borrowed from their neighbor to find the minimum of five verbs for each style of walking. By the time we finished we were all a bit bored with reading the same “vibrant verbs” over and over again.
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