Have you ever listened to a public speaker who sounded like James Bond? Didn’t it seem like you could listen to them forever just because their accent was so cool? They could have been lecturing on the dangers of pesticide use in Midwestern strawberry farms and you wouldn’t have cared—every word they said was like velvet on your ears.
In this post series, we're going to learn how to sound like that—as writers.
The mining town saw the danger and turned tail, but already the huge caterpillar tracks under London were starting to roll faster and faster. Soon the city was lumbering in hot pursuit, a moving mountain of metal that rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the cross on top of St. Paul's Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth.
— Excerpt from Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve
It seems like there are certain authors who seem to write with an accent. Every word they write glitters like diamonds. Philip Reeve, an excerpt from whose book you read above, has this talent—every page of his book, Mortal Engines, seems to read like poetry. And Reeve isn’t the only one. Charles Dickens, Laura Ingalls, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery … and hundreds more.
Is it possible for just anyone to write like that, or are some authors just specially gifted?
I believe you can write this way. Gorgeous prose is not a skill you are born with—it can be learned!
In this multi-post blog series, we’re going to look at several different ways you can achieve beautiful prose in every story you write. One word of warning: Improving your writing style won’t happen overnight. These tips must be applied over time, with scads and scads of practice.
With that said, let’s dive in!
Use Power Verbs
What's the difference between a regular verb and a power verb?
A power verb is a word that describes an action with clarity and purpose. I know ... sounds like the definition of a regular verb.
With this, it'll be easier to show you by demonstrating what power verbs are not.
Example: “Brandon was sitting lazily on the couch.”
The verb, sitting, uses the adjective, lazily, like a crutch. When a verb needs an adverb to clarify what it means, that’s a warning flag that the verb is weak.
If we wanted to use a power verb, we would say, “Brandon lounged on the couch.” The word lounged in this sense conveys the meaning “to sit lazily”, but with precision. It doesn’t instantly transform it into a sparkling sentence yet, but it’s improved.
Another example: “The garden was full of roses.”
Oh, it was full, was it? What if we replaced the verb-adjective combination was full with a power verb, like teemed?
Now it would be “The garden teemed with roses.” Bang. Power verb, baby.
Not only did we get rid of the was, which gave the sentence a passive sound, but we also replaced an adjective, full, with a verb, giving the sentence some pizazz. Whenever you can inject action into a sentence by replacing humdrum adjectives with lively verbs, your writing springs to life.
Important note: While power verbs should be used just about everywhere you can, I don’t recommend replacing the word said unless you absolutely have to. Coming up with creative alternatives to said is a sign of amateur writing, not the other way around. Filling your writing with a bunch of "exclaimed," "remarked,” “intoned,” “mentioned,” “retorted,” and so on is distracting. We have seen the word said so many times that it disappears when we read it. Our eyes skip right to the actual dialogue. So do your writing a huge favor and use the word said without fear.
All right, another example: “Ryan got in the cab of his truck and drove quickly away.”
Sometimes it actually hurts me to write these sample sentences. So bad.
Okay, let’s look at those verbs: got and drove. Nothing wrong with them, but nothing right about them either. Here’s something your English teacher might not have told you: a grammatically correct sentence is not the same as a good sentence. In fact, some of the best sentences ever written are grammatically incorrect (ever read Huck Finn?).
“Ryan got in the car” is boring for a couple of reasons. First, got isn’t that exciting of a word to read. Second, there are many other ways to more accurately describe the action here. What about climbed? Or maybe it’s a fast-paced scene, and Ryan’s action is a little more frantic. Maybe it’s time to check the thesaurus for synonyms of jumped.
The word catapulted might be interesting here. It conveys the thought that Ryan is such a hurry that he takes a huge leap just to get in his truck. Or, for a less extreme version, we could also try the word leaped.
Let’s try it: “Ryan catapulted into the cab of his truck and drove quickly away.”
Time to address the next weak verb: “drove quickly”. Because of the adverb, we know that the verb is too weak to belong here. What kind of words describe driving quickly away? What could it be compared to? We could describe the sound tires make: screeched or squealed. Or the sound of the engine: roared or bellowed. Or perhaps a metaphorical description: rocketed or blasted.
So now let’s look at the sentence: “Ryan catapulted into the cab of his truck and screeched away.”
We fixed the problematic verbs, but something about it feels ... off.
Sometimes, using power verbs isn’t the only answer. It helps. But there’s more to writing prose than power verbs. Sometimes you need to describe the action in a more poetic way.
In my next post, learn how, why, and when to use similes (and metaphors) to dramatically improve your prose and add more originality to your work!