Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vary the intensity of verbs

Opening of a classic Harlan Ellison short story, “Along the Scenic Route”:

            The blood-red Mercury with the twin-mounted 7.6 mm Spandaus cut George off as he was shifting lanes. The Merc cut out sharply, three cars behind George, and the driver decked it. The boom of his gas-turbine engine got through George’s baffling system without difficulty, like a fist in the ear. The Merc sprayed JP-4 gook and water in a wide fan from its jet nozzle and cut back in, a matter of inches in front of George’s Chevy Piranha.
            George slapped the selector control on the dash, lighting YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING and I HOPE YOU CRASH & BURN, YOU SON OF A BITCH. Jessica moaned softly with uncontrolled fear, but George could not hear her: He was screaming obsenities.
            George kicked it into Over-plunge and depressed the selector button extending the rotating buzz-saws.

Let’s take the first paragraph and weaken Ellison’s verbs (leaving the adjectives untouched) to see how it deadens the intensity:

            The blood-red Mercury had twin-mounted 7.6 mm Spandaus. It was driving aggressively when George first saw it. The Merc was moving sharply; first, it was three cars behind George, then the driver started accelerating. The boom of his gas-turbine engine was coming through George’s baffling system without difficulty. It was like a fist in the ear. JP-4 gook and water came out of the Merc’s jet nozzle, spraying in a wide fan. Suddenly, the Merc was a matter of inches in front of George’s Chevy Piranha.

But don’t make every verb glaring and howling for the reader’s attention. Choose you the tone you need for the scene and VARY THE TONE accordingly. Some scenes call for quiet prose and static description.

Here’s the opening to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

            It was 11 o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard, wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Good prose, like good music, is a matter of balance. Use strong verbs when you need them, the way a composer uses loud, dramatic notes when he needs them, if only to make the hush of the soft ones more restful.


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