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The Florid Verb

I’m at the place in my current wip where I start doing what I’ve been avoiding for the last four months (since NaNo!): tinkering.

I know what set me off. Therese and I are starting a run of interviews with writers who’ve written killer books on the craft. Since we read the books of the authors we interview, we’re immersing ourselves in their writerly wisdom. You can only internalize so much, but re-reading these classics and refreshing my memory on pacing, dialogue and tension reactivated my tinker button, and I’ve been indulging in a little editing when I know I should be getting on with getting the draft finished.

But I can’t help it. So sue me.

Right now I’m fixated on expunging unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. I thought I’d weaned myself off them pretty good, yo, but then I hit a big patch littering up an action sequence. So I turned to vibrant verbs for the fix. But after the rewrite I just about gagged over all the florid verbs.

You’ve heard of florid verbs, right? No?

That’s because most craft books tend to emphasize Adverb Evil over the Florid Verb. Nothing screams amateur hour louder than adverb-cluttered prose, but I think Florid Verbs are almost as bad. Who wants to read about a protagonist stomping and cursing and hissing all the time. Can’t they just walk, talk, whisper for once?

Boring, you say with an eye roll. Spice that puppy up. Why have your character walk when he can stride? Dial it down a little, I respond. A Florid Verb is good in small amounts, just like adverbs and adjectives. Think of them as cayenne pepper. A little goes a long way. Pages of convoluted verbs are exhausting to read and risk having your prose teeter into melodrama range. And no one’s going to think less of you if you used the occasional adverb if it saves your passage from screaming, walloping, posturing characters.

Consider:

Agnew wrestled open the bag. Cheetos rocketed over his car’s Corinthian leather. “Damn!” he declaimed. His fist hammered the dashboard. Orange powder detonated in tiny puffs with each blow. “I paid $1.99 for this bag! On sale! Now what am I going to eat for lunch?”

Agnew seems a tad over-reactive, no?

But, you say, this passage is loaded with lots of juicy verbs, and only two necessary adjectives, no adverbs. What’s wrong with this?

It’s that every verb is slamming me in the face. The writer doesn’t have to lean on every verb for the sake of vivid fiction.

Agnew opened the bag. Cheetos detonated in a puff of orange powder. His car’s Corinthian leather would never be the same. He regarded his last $1.99 sadly. “Damn.”

In the second example, the florid verb detonated now has pride of place. It conveys the action in a fresh way, and doesn’t have the dialogue tag, exclamation points, and the three other florid verbs competing for its attention.

Pick up one of your favorite novelists and see how they handle the florid verb. Stephen King makes judicious use of his verb choice. You almost never read a four-syllable whopper in his prose.

Here’s a classic by C.J. Cherryh called Writerisms and Other Sins [1]. It’s a handy cheat sheet to Florid Verbs, Adverb Evil, and pesky pronoun problems. This one’s worth printing out and having it taped up in your workspace.

About Kathleen Bolton [2]

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton [3]. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway [4]: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber [5].

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