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.
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, 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.