Monday, January 11, 2010

In Praise of Verbs

I can name the author, book, chapter, page number and very sentence responsible for transforming me into an Ardent Believer in Verbs. We’re talking Saul-in-the-Blinding-Light-of-God epiphany here, and my writing has never been the same.

The book was The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. Chapter 32, “The Hairy Devil,” page 254.

Up to that point, ie. the preceding 253 pages, I had ridden the delightful waves of her buoyant, unpredictable prose without quite realizing its effect on me. I’d smile when I read her descriptions of a rainy wharf: “Rain sluiced over the upturned [boat] bottom, pattered on the stones. … A man leaning in a doorframe, hands draining into his pockets.” Or a scene inside the offices of the The Shipping News: “Car doors slammed outside, Billy Pretty’s voice seesawed. Nutbeam snapped up alertly.”

Proulx’s rain didn’t fall: it sluiced and pattered. Hands weren’t thrust into pockets: they drained. Voices didn’t get louder and softer: they seesawed.

Assertively and efficiently, the author employed verbs not only to tell me what her characters were doing, but also how things looked and how they sounded. She was also telling me a little about how her characters felt: a man whose hands are draining into his pockets is in a different state of mind from a man whose hands are balled into fists and jammed into his pockets.

Then, at page 254, one of the main characters (Tert Card) approached a deli platter, and my writing life changed:

“He plucked at the plastic wrap, seized a handful of ham, and shoved it into his mouth.”

I stopped. I reread. I counted: plucked, seized, shoved. In three verbs and one line, Proulx told me all about Tert Card’s state of mind and foreshadowed the brutish events to follow. No adjectives, no physical descriptions, no annoying adverbs. Just simple, unequivocal language.

Maybe if I had chanced on the sentence out of context I wouldn’t have thought much of it. But the whole novel had been working on me for 253 pages, and finally, with that single sentence, something clicked.

Verbs rule. Verbs are the bomb. Verbs have got it goin’ on.

Granted, The Shipping News has some pretty rad adjectives, too, and more than 300 pages of take-your-breath-away sentences. One writer friend of mine asserts that the final line in this novel is one of the best final lines of all time … more on that later … but for a Writer Apprentice like me, who reads not only for joy but also to improve my craft, this book taught me an important lesson.

My words don’t approach the richness of Annie Proulx’s language, but I’ve got a few ideas for strengthening my verbs. First, I whip out a red pen, and hunt down every “to be” verb on a page. Any time is, was, are or were occurs, I ask myself “What’s the action here? Can I substitute a better verb which gives the reader more information and enhances the scene without piling on adjectives? Sometimes the answer is no: to be just simply must … be. Other times a wonderful verb will flex its muscles and step into the sentence. Amazingly, the sentence sings.

So, I’m a believer. Better yet: I believe. Drinking that Verb Kool Aid and working toward better and better writing.

Oh, and about that final line? The question circulated on Facebook not long ago, and folks voted for their favorite all-time-best-last-novel-line. I vacillated between the last line in The Great Gatsby and the last line in James Joyce’s short story The Dead. But then my friend reminded me of the final line in The Shipping News and despite the presence of the “to be” verb I had to agree:

“And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”


  1. To quote the classic School House Rock video, "Verbs! That's what's happenin'!" (see

    I wish you could have edited JK Rowling's work!

  2. Tammy, how funny: I was remembering that as well!

    Maria, Proulx is one of my favorite authors too. You’ve done a great job of identifying what it is about her writing that makes it so special. Excuse me while I rush back to my MS and double check the verbs.

  3. Sarah, I know, isn't she a marvel? I hadn't picked up The Shipping News in years, but was thumbing through it for this post. Now I believe it's time for a reread!

  4. Yes, verbs can do much of the heavy lifting and adverbs and adjectives should be looked at very carefully indeed before being allowed into one's sentences.....

    I love Annie P's work.
    A thought: I recently read "The Secret Garden" aloud to young people and found myself omitting all the adverbs as in "He chortled merrily" etc etc.......