Just like everyone else, writers have their pet peeves. Our are just stranger…
Set Your Phasers to Destroy: Unnecessary Verbs
by Tina Gower
Hi ho grammarly types! I’m dyslexic and I’m here to infiltrate your peaceful paradise of complaints and peeves. Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle.
My beef concerns writing weaknesses. Weaknesses in imagery with the verbs we choose and how we use them. As a school psychologist I was trained to help people with learning disabilities (like disabilities that hinder reading phonics, syntax, and comprehension). I picked up a few tricks to help people boost reading fluency and comprehension.
Along the way I discovered a funny problem that causes a mental roadblock. It’s something that I first stumbled across in other writing. Then, like a flu virus, it spread into my stories when I first started the craft and it’s a bad habit.
It’s the use of the double verb. It poses an imagery problem and puts in extra words that are unnecessary. It messes with clarity and gums up our sentences. Your mission is to seek and destroy the double verb.
Type these words into your document search tool:
I’ll use examples of this offense in a few sentences:
Helen tried to walk away from Harry.
Margaret began to sit on the couch.
Bob started to shake Mary’s hand.
The dog attempted to steal the cake.
I hope you’re awesome and you found none, but if you did find these and you’re wondering what’s the big deal, I’ll tell you.
First of all, it’s a logic flow problem. Imagine “trying to walk” okay maybe you can imagine it. Maybe you’re shaking your head and think I’m being silly. Now get up and “try to walk.” Show me what a “try to walk” looks like. Did you stumble? Did to stand paused in place wondering what to do next? Was your foot hovered in the air?
When I tried this on myself I wanted to know what a “started to sit” was. I decided physically get up out of my chair and “start to sit.” My butt hovered comically in the air. Most of the time those words can be taken out with no problem. Have people go ahead and sit (Margaret sat on the couch). Let them shake hands (Bob shook Mary’s hand). If they don’t complete the motion it will add more tension and conflict to come up with better way of showing this in body language. For example, what if someone went to shake hands and the other person carefully folded their hands behind their back. Whoa! Total awkwardness and much more interesting than a “tried to shake” situation.
Also, some writers are cheating cheaters. They know this rule and they find ways around it (or maybe don’t know the rule and just have other problems). So they’ll say, “he started sitting,” or “he tried talking.” Nice save, but we can do better. Again, a focus on the interesting body language will bring out more emotion and strengthen writing. It will paint a better picture of what is actually happening in the story. Ideally, we’d have no throw away words in a story—double verbs are so easily thrown away and don’t bring any emotional power.
The word “felt.” Run a search in your current work in progress. Unless it’s referring to felt as in the material (wool felting), or another word for touch, it might be clogging your opportunity to show emotion on the page.
She felt angry.
He felt sad.
Maria felt as though she were in a pit of eternal sadness, like a hole of nothing opened up and swallowed her.
Felt is usually followed by the naming of an emotion. Readers get told how the characters feel. Imagine how fun it is to sit on the bench at a park and people-watch. We watch some guy stomping around and screaming and we think, “oh, he’s mad!!” A little thrill zings up our spine. But we don’t get the guy stomping in the park saying, “I am angry!” Well, maybe, but that’s not as interesting. I’m giggling sort of thinking about it. I imagine Will Ferrell delivering those lines and automatically add “whirling tornado” (embedded link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhUepjZSlKM) to the end of it. Instead use body language, use internal thoughts, use setting, use a visceral response. Much more interesting. Much stronger. Readers get to make the connection. It’s more fun for readers and writers.
In her youth, Tina lived her life in a land of fantasy called the State of Jefferson. No really, her home state technically didn’t exist (except in the minds of the community members and locals). With a zip code borrowed from a town a half hour away and a state that never quite became recognized in the Union, Tina still managed to find footing in the real world. She earned a master’s degree in school psychology, raised guide dogs, and eventually decided to train her own two children. She believes them to be perfect, but that depends on if her children are as real as her hometown. Tina has sold short fiction to professional science fiction markets, won writing awards, and is represented by Rebecca Strauss at DeFiore and Company.
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