A Year on Saturn

...is approximately 29.7 Earth years.

"A Year on Saturn" is the website of Shannon Fay,
freelance and fiction writer.

Everything I Know I Learned From Crime (Fiction) – Part 2: Strong Verbs

Posted on: March 28th, 2012 by Shannon Fay No Comments

Strong verbs solve so many problems. They slay adjectives and adverbs, colour otherwise bland narration, and show the reader you know what you’re doing.

Crime writers are masters of the strong verb. Hardboiled prose requires crisp, clear narration. Even when we’re in the detective’s head the narration stays tight. Sure the private dick might spend a couple of paragraphs describing the other patrons at the dive bar he or she’s at, but even when the story digresses from the main plot the writing itself still stays lean and sharp.

My favourite writer for this is Charles Willeford. Just look at the opening paragraph to his novel ‘Pick-Up:’

‘It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chili dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chili over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn’t have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he ate his dog he left.’

Now let’s look at it again, only this time I’m going to highlight the verbs.

‘It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chili dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chili over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. Iscribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn’t have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he atehis dog he left.’

Now of course not all of these verbs are super exciting, but I love the strong verbs used to describe how the protagonist gets the hot dog together: sliced, jerked, nested. Such interesting actions for such a mundane task. But the words aren’t just there for razzle-dazzle: through the main character’s quick but sure movements (poured, sprinkled, scribbled) we get the sense that he’s been doing this for a long time, that he’s spent many a quarter to eleven dishing up disgusting food to strangers and that he’s tired of it. On a large scale all of this is setting up the rest of the novel. On a smaller scale it’s setting up the very next line:

‘That was the exact moment she entered.’

Ah yes, we can see now that things are about to change, that maybe this night is the last night our protagonist is going to spend slopping together chili dogs for drunken sailors. But is his life going to change for the better or worse? Well, that would be spoiling the novel.

Next week: Part 3: Lingo

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