Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Behind the Books: Just the Right Word, Part 1

Last week I talked about paying conscious attention to the sound of words. But that’s not the only reason it’s important to think about word choice. The truth is that word choice is a very big topic. So to give the topic the space and time it truly deserves, I’ve decided to break it down into several parts and continue writing about it for perhaps a month. Like I said, there’s a lot of cover.

Today I’ll focus on the power of strong, action verbs, or vigorous verbs, as I like to call them. So often when I critique manuscripts from new writers, I see so many weak, passive “to be” verbs that I just want to scream and pull my hair out.

In school, we all learn that verbs are action words. For heaven sake, make verbs do their jobs.
Action verbs bring a piece of writing to life, and they allow a writer to be more specific—always a good thing. All writers should strive to choose verbs that say precisely what they want.

Here’s an excerpt from my book Baboons with the verbs highlighted.

As the sizzling mid-day sun beats down on an African plain, a pride of lions snoozes lazily in the open grass. Not far away, zebras and gazelle graze nervously. A leopard rests on the lowest branch of a lone tree, while vultures fight for the final scraps of an early morning kill. A small herd of elephants slowly saunters by. They are headed toward the river, where hippos lounge in the shallow water. The savanna is quiet and peaceful.

After a busy morning of foraging, a troop of olive baboons naps in the row of trees lining the river. But one rambunctious youngster can’t get to sleep. He climbs down from his safe perch and begins exploring. The little baboon’s movements don’t go unnoticed. A hungry crocodile watches his progress. As the baboon wanders closer and closer to the water’s edge, the croc quietly glides toward him.

Just as the predator is about to lunge, a series of short, sharp barks shatters the silence. It is the alarm cry of a female baboon. She has just awoken and realized her youngster is in trouble. Without a moment’s hesitation, a nearby male races to the ground, scoops up the little one, and carries him back to safety. It was a close call.

You’ll notice that almost all the verbs do some describing. They help set the scene.

But take a closer look and you’ll see a “to be” verb at the end of the first and third paragraphs (marked in red). These were deliberate choices.

At the end of paragraph 1, I wanted to tone things down so the action of the scene in paragraph 2 would be more powerful. I wanted the contrast.

At the end of paragraph 3, I want to bring the anecdote to a satisfactory ending and convey to the reader that we are now about to move on to something new—a more straightforward description of the evolution of baboons and their place in the monkey family tree.

So my verb choices crank up the action when that’s my intent, and then they slow things down when that’s what I want my readers to do. See how powerful verbs can be?

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