What is a ‘strong verb’?

dictionary

In high school English we were taught to use ‘strong verbs’ and ‘specific nouns’. Today I’d like to say about more about those strong verbs.

When I taught high school English myself, I noticed the advice was sometimes misinterpreted. Some took it to mean ‘pick the most comically impactful verb’. In place of ‘get out’ (of a chair) they’d choose ‘leap’. In place of ‘put down’ (a school bag) they’d choose ‘throw down’. There was also the danger that those ‘strong verbs’ would creep into dialogue tags, which is another issue altogether.

Other students would make heavy use of a thesaurus, picking unusual verbs. In place of ‘whisper’, ‘susurrate’.  Better thesaurus enthusiasts do make sure their readers could nevertheless deduce the meaning from context.

But there’s another, higher level of word ninja-ing and as writers we must aspire to this one.

Word ninjas choose verbs not only for their dictionary definitions but for their connotations, associations and how they fit into your overall symbol web.

Earlier this year I wrote a re-visioning of “The Pied Piper.” In my story, children are swallowed up into a hill. That’s the verb I used in my first draft — swallow. It was the first that came to mind and it’s not particularly apt. Nothing wrong with it really, and it lasted several drafts. But when I really focused on my verbs in a later pass, I had to admit, I didn’t really mean to turn the hill into a creature with a mouth.

Then I referred back to Robert Browning’s poem and realised that his verb ‘trepan’ was far better. Why? Because of its multiple associations:

trepan

Note that the verb has a mining use, which is basically how Browning uses it, but it also has a grotesque medical use which harks back to medieval times. (Browning wrote his poem fairly recently — even to him, the medical practice of trepanning would have seemed archaic and disturbing.) Because of its mining AND its medical associations, trepan is a far better verb than swallow.

After all the Annie Proulx short stories I’ve been reading lately, I’ve turned attention to how Proulx uses verbs.

Strop — ‘His razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents’. This verb in its literal (non metaphorical) sense means to sharpen something with a strop. A strop is a strip of leather for sharpening razors. In a story about rural characters who work with their hands, this verb is especially appropriate.

Patinate — ‘But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river…’ Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals (a.k.a. tarnish) or certain stones and wooden furniture (sheen from wear, age and polishing) or any similar acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. This may count as an example of pathetic fallacy, in which attributes of something else actually describe the character. It is the character who is built up with layers (of age and experience). (Literature majors let me know if there’s a more appropriate term for this technique than pathetic fallacy.)

Other various examples of verbs done well:

Unloose — meaning ‘to loosen the ties of’, but when the writer used ‘unloose’ instead of ‘loosen’, they wanted to suggest ‘unleashing’, of something bad, like demons or bad memories.

‘Leavened with pride’, in a story which includes kitchen scenes where bread is baked. Pick any verb in any dictionary and you’ll find literal meanings listed first, followed by metaphorical meanings, which are now so common we hardly consider them metaphors. Pick verbs whose metaphorical meanings match the symbol web of your story.

Confect — means to make or construct, but is linked to confectionary, so this verb is useful to describe a character who is both a confectioner/lover of sweets and also, say, a liar.

FURTHER TIPS FOR CHOOSING GOOD VERBS

Think of your milieu. Some verbs are chosen because they are reminiscent of an earlier era: to be afeared of (afraid of), bewail.

Play with your verb nouns. In English, a lot of words are used as both nouns and verbs, one usage leading to the other. Blat means to cry plaintively. It’s also a noun: ‘tooting the horn in loud blats’ (Annie Proulx). A lot of our English words are commonly used as verbs but not as nouns, or vice versa. Try making use of the less common part of speech.

Be mindful of syllable count and phonology. Proulx writes harsh landscapes, so chooses single syllable verbs where possible, and if there are hard consonants like plosives and fricatives, all the better. (Blat, strop and crump etc. match these harsh landscapes. Proulx also uses words like these as character names, and links character to physical setting.)

ONE LOOK DICTIONARY

To help with all this, I highly recommend making use of (the completely free)  OneLook Dictionary. It’s the best writing resource I’ve seen online. You probably know it yourself, but have you found its slightly hidden features? If you haven’t used it recently, it benefited from recent upgrades.

The ‘related words’ page is especially useful, but this is no traditional thesaurus.

onelook dictionary

I recently wrote a short story about a butcher, and the symbol web was — of course — related to meat. So when using OneLook I made sure to make use of its filter functionality:

onelook filter

When I search for hits ‘related to meat’, the dictionary returns results which are tangentially, if not directly, related to my symbol web of meat. Top of the list were:

layer related to meat

As you can see, the job of selecting words is still a very manual process, but this OneLook feature has been super useful to me on various occasions. (Sometimes it is, sometimes it leads me down a fascinating rabbit hole, but is that not the joy of writing?) This feature is especially useful if you have a word on the tip of your tongue.

Poets and poetic stylists take note: You can search the thesaurus by meter:

(The forward slash means stressed, the x unstressed.)

For the more common definitions all you need to do is click once on a word and you get a pop-up window. This saves you opening a whole heap of extra tabs while you’re looking for just the right word:

And I generally know which part of speech I’m looking for, in which case, I definitely make use of this tab to narrow down the results:

OneLook parts of speech

OneLook lets you search by the number of letters (good for crossword enthusiasts, I imagine — I haven’t used it once when writing prose); by ‘sounds like’ and also by ‘primary vowel’. The nice thing about the ‘primary vowel’ feature is, it breaks the non-useful aeiou of English into useful phonemes (though doesn’t make use of phonemic transcriptions, which is only a bummer if you have learned that and would like to occasionally put it to use).

Go forth and have fun with OneLook. Some writers advise against making use of a dictionary and thesaurus — Stephen King is a well-known naysayer, but I wonder if he’s ever seen OneLook! I wonder if Stephen King has ever been stumped for words… Possibly the very best thing about OneLook, and I believe its raison d’être, is its ‘reverse’ functionality. I couldn’t think of the word ‘naysayer’ just then, so I typed ‘anti advocate’ and it returned what — at first — looks like a useless bunch of words, but the 19th result was ‘nay’, which led me to ‘naysayer’.

There’s also a new Spanish version of OneLook.

 

A Run of Bad Luck by Annie Proulx Storytelling

a run of bad luck

“A Run of Bad Luck” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published in 1987, collected in Heart Songs, 1999.

  • I find this story interesting for its themes around the problematic concept of luck, and the role of decision-making in making one’s own ‘luck’.
  • The opening paragraphs describing the mother in the kitchen is an excellent example of how kitchen work provides opportunities for highly symbolic body language beats. ‘She sawed the loaf of bread into thick slices and stacked them on a plate, set out a pound of butter already hacked and scored by knife blades.’
  • Proulx treats the house like a stage, introducing first the mother in the kitchen, next the husband enters, followed by the sons all coming in for something to eat. Larry McMurtry did the same in the opening of Lonesome Dove.
  • ‘hung up the wool jackets that held the shapes of their shoulders, the bend of their arms’
  • When the POV switches to Haylett’s after the kitchen scene, sticklers for ‘head hopping’ might complain, but this is a good example of a writer gently leading us towards a bigger change in POV. The ‘camera’ focuses on Haylett even before the double line break. (The double line break is for the change in time — next morning — as much as for the change in POV.)
  • Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit: ‘Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.’ Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but she’s using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive.

Continue reading “A Run of Bad Luck by Annie Proulx Storytelling”

Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel

child age

Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.

How and when to convey that bit of information?

I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately. Continue reading “Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel”

Giants and Ogres In Storytelling

Jack and the Beanstalk

Giants and ogres are central archetypes in the fairytale cast. Though similar, they’re not exactly the same.

GIANTS AND OGRES: THE DIFFERENCE

Giants are not identical with ogres but they share characteristics, stories and meaning. Giants are big. That’s their defining feature.

Ogres have a massive appetite. That’s their defining feature, and in true fairytale fashion, their body is an outworking of their inner story.

Ogre stories are related to the Oedipal plot, about the battle of power between fathers and sons.

The songs and stories that feature ogres and cannibal devils and other monstrous eaters raise questions about the very nature of desire and our ways of expressing it: do our appetites make us monstrous?

— Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

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Bedrock by Annie Proulx Storytelling Techniques

bedrock annie proulx

“Bedrock” is a short story from Annie Proulx’s collection Heart Songs, published 1999. This is a subversive feminist tale, which challenges the readers assumptions about ‘gold-digger’ women and especially those we dismiss as ‘rednecks’.

“Bedrock” makes a good mentor text if you: Continue reading “Bedrock by Annie Proulx Storytelling Techniques”

Baba Yaga: Witch or old woman?

WHO IS BABA YAGA?

  • Baba Yaga is a legendary witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga.
  • Yaga May be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl. Or the Russian word for eating.
  • She’s not always malignant.
  • She is cunning.
  • She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies.
  • She dispenses hospitality capriciously.
  • Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often an individual.
  • She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
  • Unusual mode of flight ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake boil tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes.
  • She fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
  • She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it.
  • Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies.
  • A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.
  • This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.
  • Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).
  • She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.
  • She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.
  • Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.

Continue reading “Baba Yaga: Witch or old woman?”

Stone City by Annie Proulx

stone city

“Stone City” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1979, collected 20 years later in Heart Songs. Some of Proulx’s short stories are like compacted novels, and “Stone City” is one of those. The story of the humans is wrapped by the story of a fox, looking in from a slight distance. “Stone City” is a good example of what some literature academics call ‘delayed coding’.

For writers, “Stone City” makes a good mentor text:

  • If you’re building a story which is partly from the point of view of an animal. The fox is linked to a human character, Noreen Pineaud, who is described as like a fox. “Stone City” is therefore a good example of how to make use of animal imagery and, more importantly, how to link this imagery to the Self-revelation part of a story.
  • For description of a setting which is a character in itself:

It was an abandoned farm vine between two ridges, no roads in or out, only a faint track choked with viburnum and alder. The property, shaped like an eye, was bordered on the back by a stream. Popple and spruce had invaded the hay fields, and the broken limbs of the apple trees hung to the ground.

The buildings were gone, collapsed into cellar holes of rotting beams. Blackberry brambles boiled out of the crumbling foundations and across a fallen blue door that half-blocked a cellar hole.

  • A storyteller narrator, who tells a story within a story, jumping back and forth in chronology, with events linked thematically rather than by time.
  • Related to the storyteller voice, in this story Proulx is especially economical with language. Instead of saying, ‘A bell tinkled and Brittany came into the field to pick [the birds] up. Banger followed close behind. Then he said  said…’ Proulx leaves out the ‘Banger followed close behind’ detail. We infer that if Banger has started talking, Banger is now on the scene.
  • Perhaps this is only noticeable because I recently read all the first and second volume of Grimm fairytales back to back, but there are subtle fairytale elements in “Stone City”. For instance, the way Banger’s dog sleeps behind the stove. This is where old people almost about to die spend their days in Grimm fairytales. Then of course there’s the Hansel and Gretel plot of finding an unexpected dwelling in the middle of the wilderness, the ‘sugarhouse’ of Banger is almost reminiscent of the gingerbread house. When Banger turns off ‘accidentally’ and takes the narrator home for dinner, was that really an accident, or on purpose? The nearby fox, circling the town, waiting for a chance to pounce/trick.

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Heart Songs by Annie Proulx Storytelling

heart songs

“Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx utilises a dynamic employed by a number of other stories in the same-named Heart Songs collection — an outsider comes into a rural community and misunderstands local ways. In this case he idealises what he dismissively calls ‘redneck’ culture. Sometimes in this variety of Proulx story, the consequences are darkly humorous — at other times they’re life-threatening. This is one of the darker examples.

“Heart Songs” makes a good mentor text:

  • As an example of a main character who learns nothing about himself, but who has a fairly good grip on his weaknesses and is now learning to live with them rather than change. Proulx includes a proxy self-revelation which is the character feeling sorry for himself.
  • For the wonderfully apt imagery. Snipe is described as fire, both in looks and in the way he blows from place to place wreaking havoc. Nell is compared to the blackberry.
  • For a description of a place which starts at the town level, follows a character up the road, viewing the house through the window, then takes us right into the house, down to the macro details.
  • For an example of putting the reader on the wrong track, without telegraphing the fact. ‘Ruby would be her brother, with the same broad face and heavy body.’

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Why write a ghost story when you don’t believe in ghosts?

ghost

What’s the point of ghost stories?

In this post, ‘ghost’ is a proxy for anything supernatural: What’s the point of monsters, werewolves, and other magical fantasies?

I have a friend who disapproves of Harry Potter, but not for religious reasons — for scientific ones. His argument: stories about magic promote magical thinking, when the world needs more critical thinking. I can’t fault him on his main point, but do magical, ghostly, supernatural stories during childhood really contribute to lack of reason, and poor critical thinking?

For storytelling purposes it doesn’t really matter if ghosts are ‘real’ or not. The feelings definitely are.

‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’

Meg Rosoff

PERFECTLY GOOD REASONS FOR WRITING GHOST STORIES

  1. To encourage readers to believe in ghosts. To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
  2. To create a temporary storyworld in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
  3. To allow us insight into the way others experience fears. Supernatural stories can be allegories for mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations. The experience of non-reality as reality is indistinguishable from actual reality. If some of that fear can be provoked in us, we might achieve empathy with those people.
  4. Supernatural elements in a story can function as part of the symbol web, leading the reader towards new (non-supernatural) insight about the human experience: longing, obsession, uncertainty and disbelief. The symbol web might signify memories of things which exist no longer, or various other fears and anxieties.
  5. To allow scary experiences without leaving the audience in a downcast mood. Stories which genuinely scare me are about climate change, about missing children, about sickness and old age. This is a depressing kind of scary, and part of me would like to really enjoy a Stephen King novel, with beasts and supernatural beings which will never actually hurt me or my family. For most of us, ghosts are a pure, safe kind of terror.

Continue reading “Why write a ghost story when you don’t believe in ghosts?”