Monday Motivation: Write sentences that crackle, whirl and lash
Let’s talk about writing at its most granular level, where the choice of words writers make affects our experience as readers on a second-by-second basis.
Take a passage like this, for instance:
David walks into the room. He goes to the window and looks out at the landscape beyond. Feeling a sneeze building somewhere in his sinuses, he puts his hand in his pocket and takes out his handkerchief. The sneeze doesn’t come. Feeling somewhat at a loss, he makes his way to the kitchen in search of Emily.
Right, I’m aware that nothing of particular interest takes place within the compass of that paragraph – just one of those sneezes that never quite arrives – but at the same time, the paragraph suffers from a series of weak verbs that fail to inject any energy or purpose into the action. Look at them:
He walks into the room… He goes to the window… He puts his hand in his pocket… He takes out his handkerchief… The sneeze doesn’t come… He makes his way to the kitchen.
Ho hum, I say, and turn to something more interesting.
None of these verbs is disgraceful. They all have earned a place in the lexicon. But couldn’t the writer of that piece have found verbs with a little more oomph? Verbs that point to the character’s state of mind? Verbs that generate interest.
These thoughts occurred to me today as I read a piece in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye about the new solar telescope that’s just gone into action on a volcanic peak on Hawaii. It’s the only telescope in the world totally dedicated to a study of the sun, and the first images it captured have told astronomers some very interesting things about our very own star
In reporting on these discoveries, the NYT writer gave a quick sketch of the way in which energy makes its way from the fusion furnace of the sun’s interior to its surface. Here’s a paragraph that particularly struck me:
“Here, 93 million miles from the nearest star — the one we call the sun — the creatures of Earth eke out a living on the edge of almost incomprehensible violence. Every second, thermonuclear reactions in the center of the Sun turn 5 million tons of hydrogen into pure energy. That energy makes its way outward, through boiling gas pocked with magnetic storms that crackle, whirl and lash space with showers of electrical particles and radiation.”
Now, if a reader doesn’t find that paragraph electrifying, if it doesn’t send a jolt of adrenalin through his bloodstream, then I’d be surprised. “Crackle, whirl and lash”! How wonderfully those verbs animate the description!
Not every description requires words as vivid or as corruscating as those. In our initial, flabby paragraph, “crackles, whirls and lashes” would be inappropriate. But instead of the nondescript “walks” you might choose to have your character stride, or sidle, even. Instead of “going” to the window, he might take three paces there. Instead of “looking”, he might scrutinise or interrogate or examine. He doesn’t have to “put” his hand in his pocket – he could, instead, reach or dig into it…
These are small changes, but they add a little muscularity to an otherwise undistinguished paragraph, a little vigour, a little liveliness.
And who can say nay to muscularity, vigour and liveliness?
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: When does contemplation become procrastination?‘
Creating Characters for Screenwriters: Starts 24 February