Evacuated Descriptions

09Mar12

Hello SpecTechnique readers. Today I’ve got a short but hopefully interesting entry about what I like to call evacuated descriptions.

One of the most frequent notes I got when I started out writing was that my verbs were weak & wimpy. I preferred “was running” to “ran”; “was defeated” to “lost.” My verbs weren’t sufficiently active and dynamic. This is normal stuff, the advice beginners need to to hear, and it’s addressed well in this article. (Ignore the political ads!) Chances are if you take it to heart, it’ll make your writing clearer, snappier, and more fun to read.

I wouldn’t say my verbs are perfect now, but in my 5-6-odd years of writing practice I think I’ve improved a bit. I’m certainly more mindful about verb phrases now than I was before.

But what I figured out recently is that, just as you can pep up your prose by using stronger verbs, you can also create a flat feeling by doing the opposite.

Why would you ever want to do that?

Like if you need to create a sense of spareness and quiet to fit the atmosphere of the scene, as in Georges Simenon’s The Engagement:

The boulevards were emptier than usual. People were huddled in small groups around the braziers. The asphalt was white from the frost.

simenon

too cool for colorful verbs

Or if you want to create a distanced, dreamlike, exhausted feel, as in Michael Moorcock’s “Crossing into Cambodia” (I found this short story in the VanderMeers’ New Weird antho). I’ve bolded all the verb forms.

The jungle was behind us now and seemed to have been a screen hiding the devastation ahead. The landscape was virtually flat, as if it had been bombed clean of contours, with a few broken buildings, the occasional blackened tree, and ash drifted across the road, coming sometimes up to our horses’ knees. The ash was stirred by a light wind. We had witnessed scenes like it before, but never on such a scale. The almost colourless nature of the landscape was emphasised by the unrelieved brilliance of the blue sky overhead. The sun had become very hot.

Can you feel the mood Moorcock creates precisely by avoiding the usual writing advice you hear, to “make your verbs exciting”? (Note that “blackened” and “drifted,” which might look at first like active simple past verbs, are in fact used as past participles.)

Finally, you can use this distancing technique if you want to create a sense of stillness and expansion. Here’s Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men.

The raw rock mountains shadowed in the late sun and to the east the shimmering abscissa of the desert plains hung dark as soot all along the quadrant.

Because “shadowed” and “hung” can both be read either as verbs simple past verbs or as past participles, I can’t actually tell if this sentence has any verbs at all. All I know is, I like the feeling the ambiguity creates.

Check back Monday for some linkage…

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