Verb Choice in Fiction

I recently ran across an article titled “Falsifying memories” at The Guardian’s Neurophilosophy blog. I read the article in my usual half-distracted manner until a sentence caught my full attention and prompted me to start over. The second time through, I read much more carefully. Here’s the sentence:

[Elizabeth] Loftus started her career investigating semantic memory – how word meanings are stored in the brain – and somewhat ironically, it is the meaning of words that seems to lie at the heart of the matter. (1)

For me, this sentence hinted at fascinating possibilities. The article doesn’t expand on the semantic memory work, so I started clicking links to find out more. One of the links led me to a longer profile by the same author, published in Nature. There I found this marvelous set of paragraphs:

…Loftus won funding in 1974 for a proposal to study witness accounts of accidents, and she soon published the first of several influential studies revealing the limitations of eyewitness testimony1. She showed people film clips of car accidents and asked them to estimate the speed of the cars. The wording of the questions, she found, had a profound effect on the estimates. People who were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” gave higher estimates on average than those with whom the verb ‘hit’ was used. And those who were told that the cars had ‘contacted’ each other gave the lowest estimates.

Those asked about cars smashing into one another were more than twice as likely as others to report seeing broken glass when asked about the accident a week later, even though there was none in the video. “I realized that these questions were conveying information,” says Loftus. “I began to think of it as a process of memory contamination, and we eventually called it the misinformation effect.” (2)

[Citation within the text of the first paragraph:  1. Loftus, E. F. & Palmer, J. C. J. Verb. Learn. Verb. Behav. 13, 585–589 (1974).]

It seems frivolous to lift the findings of such important research out of their context and apply them to fiction writing, but I couldn’t help drawing a connection. Consider the varying responses to the words smashed, hit, and contacted, and imagine writing about a car accident. Detailed descriptions of speed and broken glass become redundant if the car is smashed.

Every self-help writing book and article talks about verb choice, and it seems there is more to the recommendation than I previously understood. Perhaps tendrils of memory contamination are key elements of fiction. After all, my favorite fictional worlds are so vibrant that I almost remember being in them. And as a writer, I want my work to be memorable.

At the time I found these articles, I was re-reading The Hobbit. Few books live in my memory as vividly as The Hobbit. The words, as much as the story, create its charm.

Here’s a paragraph from the first chapter:

If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-granduncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment. (3)

In this paragraph, “charged,” “knocked,” and “sailed” carry the scene for me. The peak phrases are evocative, but they are also interesting rhythmically.  In particular, note how the string of airy vowels in “It sailed a hundred yards through the air” stops hard against the consonants of “went down.” It’s poetry, as much as verb choice, which is a digression from my topic. I’ll save my raptures about poetic prose for a later post.

The Hobbit is a trove of effective verb choice, in part because its unique and interesting verbs are used in moderation. They stand out because they are relatively infrequent. They would be less interesting, and less effective, if every verb in every sentence was just as interesting. The other verbs in the above paragraph–have seen, will realize, applied, was, etc.–are elegant in their simplicity.

When I edit my writing, I dedicate an entire revision run-though to verb selection. I scrutinize every verb in every sentence, and try to improve them all. But perhaps my focus has been too tight. I lacked moderation, so my writing lacked rhythm. In the future I want to choose my moments. Concentrate more on the structure of my stories, and how sentences reinforce that structure, and less on the structure of individual sentences. Because I want my stories to be memorable, not my sentences.

References

1. Costandi, Mo. “Falsifying memories.” @Neurophilosophy. The Guardian. 16 August 2013. Web. 24 August 2013.

2. Costandi, Moheb. “Evidence-based justice: Corrupted memory” Nature Vol. 500, Issue 7462. (15 August 2013) 268-270. Web. 24 August 2013.

3. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977. 30. Print.

Blue Moon August 20

Blue Moon, August 20, 2013

I mention writing in many of my posts, but I seldom discuss the mechanics of writing that are important to me. So this post is a departure from my theme. I hope to make more departures, in the future, and write more about writing. 

57 thoughts on “Verb Choice in Fiction

  1. rami ungar the writer September 3, 2013 / 4:09 PM

    I recently learned about this in sociology class. Word choice can effect outcomes not just in studies, but in decisions, polls, and surveys. Interesting research subject, if you ask me.

  2. CC Cairns September 3, 2013 / 4:51 PM

    A really interesting piece helped by appropriate excerpt. Intriguing!

  3. blogging4work September 3, 2013 / 5:23 PM

    Loved this. Great article.

  4. Tom Stringham September 3, 2013 / 5:28 PM

    Thanks for this insight: “I scrutinize every verb in every sentence, and try to improve them all. But perhaps my focus has been too tight. I lacked moderation, so my writing lacked rhythm.” It rings true.

    I’ve discovered recently the value of spending more time arranging ordinary words in unexpected ways than on choosing unexpected words. And as you go on to say in a way I hadn’t thought about before, structure goes beyond the sentence, and words give character to entire stories.

    • Rae Spencer September 3, 2013 / 5:45 PM

      I love the way you phrase it, “…the value of spending more time arranging ordinary words in unexpected ways than on choosing unexpected words.” Exactly!

  5. Lisa Chesser September 3, 2013 / 7:08 PM

    This is beyond fantastic. I know how to write but I also teach writing and I’m always trying to figure out how to communicate what I want students to do with their verbs. This is it. You put it into words, perfectly.

  6. katmphotography September 3, 2013 / 7:25 PM

    what an interesting piece of writing!

    and certainly food for thought.
    thanks for sharing.

    • Rae Spencer September 4, 2013 / 11:38 PM

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • katmphotography September 5, 2013 / 5:03 AM

        it was a really interesting piece.

  7. ncbek September 3, 2013 / 7:32 PM

    “They stand out because they are relatively infrequent.” – Rae Spencer

    I think this can be said about most word choices, and is a great stand alone rule to any writing method. The way you continue to invigorate the reader is by planting exciting and adventurous treasures within the script to get them energized about what you are writing. Sure you can have a great story, but without a collection of little gems you are just robbing them of an even more enriching experience.

    This is something that I personally need to work on more within my writing, but I think that it is a lesson that everyone can live by and grow from.

    ~N
    If we still had to write under candle light, I would die.
    http://ncbek.wordpress.com

    • Rae Spencer September 4, 2013 / 11:23 PM

      I like your reference to gems. Reading is very much like a treasure hunt, for me, and I get excited when I find something particularly beautiful. I often return to books, when I’ve finished them, with a notebook and pen. I write out quotes and interesting phrases, complete with page numbers. Then, whenever I need a bit of inspiration, I read through my notebook. Sometimes I return to the original text and re-read the entire book, finding new gems along the way…

  8. Trebor Fairwell September 3, 2013 / 8:33 PM

    Agree completely! As a writer and English teacher, I often preach the gospel of graphic verbs–verbs that shoulder imagery, verbs that paint with bright colors. When a student grasps the concept, his/her writing instantly improves.

    • Rae Spencer September 4, 2013 / 11:37 PM

      I don’t know if my writing has improved, but I’m definitely enjoying the process of revision more. I seem to be having more moments where passages “feel right,” and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the new revisions with my critique group.

  9. Caro September 3, 2013 / 9:29 PM

    I used to write causes of action in personnel matters requiring employee discipline. I was always careful to use verbs that lead the reader, even if it were the charged person himself, to understand a greater sense of the gravity if each event of misconduct. My arguments therefore bolstered the need for discipline and ultimately increased the perceived need for a more impactful punishment. Often, the employee himself became convinced of the gravity if their actions and sought to settle the case rather than fight it in an administrative hearing. Words not only influence perceptions of “what took place,” but also of how we feel about it. We surely can agree that controlling feelings about what we hear (inside and it outside our minds) helps us to control our behavior. Interesting topic. Kept me engaged.

  10. What Happens to Us September 3, 2013 / 11:57 PM

    You are certainly thinking this through. Verbs are certainly important, but if you’ve ever written a novel in vernacular, you’ll know the importance of using good slang words. I once had a dispute with a fine writer about my use of the word “mook,” which is a word that sticks in the memory and conveys something that no other word can, but which she saw a vulgar and dated. You’re also right that structure is more important than sentences, and sentences, more important than words. Feeling are more important than all of them.

    • Rae Spencer September 4, 2013 / 5:29 PM

      For me, it all starts with words. Every emotion, every action, every character and scene. In books, everything is made of words.

      You are right to point out that verbs are not the only words to consider. You cite an example of a word that you feel “sticks in the memory and conveys something that no other word can,” but which one of your readers considered “vulgar and dated.” This touches on the power of words to cause pain and offense, and whether or not writers should take advantage of that power in their work. The topic deserves its own blog post/discussion, and I plan to address it in more detail later.

  11. nikhilkuria September 4, 2013 / 2:37 AM

    A great piece of writing and will give you a 10/10 for the Hobbit example.

  12. Kyrielle Adelshine September 4, 2013 / 6:35 AM

    Very interesting post! Kind of reminds me of a philosophy class I took in college on Robert Brandom, kind of a similar idea. Thanks for sharing ;0). It’s gonna make me think twice now in my writing too!!

    • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 12:07 AM

      I definitely want to add a few philosophy books to my reading list. Maybe I should look into Robert Brandom’s work…

      • Kyrielle Adelshine September 5, 2013 / 7:34 AM

        Ohh man I remember it was tough material but only because just about every other paragraph blew the lid right off my mind! Intriguing stuff.

        My personal favorite it friedrich Nietzsche, ever heard of him? He’s awesome and pretty easy to read and understand as far as dense philosophical literature goes ;0) may be worth a wiki search if you searching around anyways.

        Thanks for the response ;0)

        • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 5:57 PM

          I’ve read Why I Am So Wise, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra is on my shelf, waiting to be read!

        • Kyrielle Adelshine September 5, 2013 / 9:08 PM

          Hah! How funny! I’ve never heard of Why I Am So Wise, but I looked it up and now I’ma have to get that on my bookshelf to read as well! It’s so ridiculous…I’m in the middle of approx. 15 books and have about 125 in queue. But nothin’ wrong that… BOY do I love books ;0)

  13. kattieone September 4, 2013 / 6:44 AM

    Great article. I am still working hard on my English, and I have only started discovering the emotional impact behind English verbs. I find such research highly valuable not only for writing but also for reading and speaking. Words, not eyes, are the mirror of the soul 🙂

    • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 12:08 AM

      Beautifully stated! “Words, not eyes, are the mirror of the soul.” Thank you!

  14. lenkennedy September 4, 2013 / 7:27 AM

    Beautifully written. Exquisitely explained.

  15. lynnwyvill September 4, 2013 / 9:11 AM

    I enjoy your writing and photos about nature, but I’m happy you are going to branch out and write about writing. Enjoyed this post. You gave me a new appreciation for the power of verbs.

    • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 12:19 AM

      I really enjoyed writing this, and the response to it has been overwhelming. I’m already planning my next “writing about writing” post. 🙂

      • lynnwyvill September 7, 2013 / 1:41 PM

        Yeah, I look forward to reading it!

  16. susielindau September 4, 2013 / 9:47 AM

    This study is so fascinating. I love the leap you make with verb choice. I am rewriting my first novel for the 873rd time and have been replacing verbs along the way. There is so much disdain for was and were, but sometimes they have to be used. I agree with your point about varying verbs to help some that are well placed to pop from the page. I will use this technique along with varying sentence length for giving rhythm to a story.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 12:45 AM

      At first 873 sounded like it must be an exaggeration, but then I thought about my own first manuscript. I can’t count the times I’ve said, “It’s finished!” And each time I read it again, I find something to change. Now I’ve started saying, “Revisions approaching infinity.” 🙂

      • susielindau September 5, 2013 / 9:25 AM

        It is an exaggeration, but it feels like infinity! 🙂

  17. threepointeightbillionyears.com September 4, 2013 / 9:56 AM

    Very helpful advice at the end about a read-through just for verbs. I’ll give that a try. Sometimes verbs that I originally thought were lively seem, when I re-read them, just likely to take a reader off in some unintended direction. Or, at the other extreme, they are hideously blah.

    • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 1:02 AM

      I’ve found that starting a revision read-through with a very specific goal in mind helps keep me focused. Otherwise I wander off into reworking dialogue or changing paragraph order and forget to make certain that my verb tense stays consistent. I still get sidetracked, but not as often.

  18. L. Palmer September 4, 2013 / 1:09 PM

    I like the examples from the Hobbit. Verb choice, and word choice, add a lot of depth and life to a sentence. It is worth the extra time and research to find the right words.

  19. Grace @ Cultural Life September 4, 2013 / 3:05 PM

    The Elizabeth Loftus study is really fascinating, isn’t it? It poses a lot of questions as to how the language we read and hear shapes perception and thought. Another important linguistic study which relates to this is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir coined a hypothesis that the semantic structure of language defines our thoughts and actions (more info, if you’re interested, at the Linguist List: http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/sapir.cfm). Although the hypothesis has its flaws, it just goes to show how powerful a tool language can be. As an aspiring linguist, I find it all very interesting and I enjoyed reading your post. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Rae Spencer September 5, 2013 / 1:06 AM

      Thanks for the link! 🙂

  20. waxnwings September 5, 2013 / 6:50 AM

    great post, I think I too suffer from over scrutinizationat the expense of rhythm. It can be hard looking at teh story at large when you really want evenry sentence ot be ‘perfect’.Think I am going to have to loosen the reigns a little..

  21. Book Nanny September 5, 2013 / 1:49 PM

    Great post, Rae. Coming from an acting background, I am a great fan of ‘action’ verbs such as those you talk about in the Tolkein extract (I am also a huge Tolkein fan!). As you say, they can really lift a piece of writing – used as you say in moderation, they are great for allowing a writer to ‘show’ rather than tell.

  22. Laura McKenna September 5, 2013 / 3:07 PM

    Just came across this post now. Fascinating subject. John Banville is another writer with a creative affinity for verbs. Really enjoyed your Hobbit example!

  23. samanthajulie September 5, 2013 / 5:02 PM

    Reblogged this on Audience Engagement and commented:
    #VerbChoice #Fiction #PeakPhrases #InterestingVerbsInModeration

  24. merrysusanna September 5, 2013 / 5:12 PM

    I enjoyed this post. Food for thought!

  25. ami granada September 6, 2013 / 8:22 AM

    This is really helpful. My view about verbs changed drastically. I love that you departed from your theme.

  26. BellaBell September 6, 2013 / 11:51 AM

    Awesome post! Very interesting. 🙂

  27. raind33r94 September 9, 2013 / 10:37 AM

    This is fascinating to me how you’re so on point. I’ve never thought of verbs or word choices that way before, usually I just write what I feel most comfortable with. Thank you for writing this. I’m going to pay more attention when I write next time 🙂

  28. quilltwist September 9, 2013 / 10:48 AM

    Reblogged this on QuillTwist and commented:
    I’ve just found this article by Rae Spencer, who gives an insight into the importance of verbs, and a wonderful example from The Hobbit to illustrate his thoughts.

  29. mylatinnotebook September 10, 2013 / 11:37 AM

    The other verb problem is over-use of passive voice. Nothing kills prose quicker. Great post.

  30. Touch2Touch October 7, 2013 / 10:50 AM

    Most writing about writing is trivial, bombastic, or boring. And we all know it’s important what verbs we use, blah blah blah.
    But this is a triumph: it’s fascinating to read and observe, and says something truly important!

    The idea of contamination is also of supreme importance in these contentious and lying times. How easily it’s done, how rarely detected.

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