No one has ever turned to the passenger in the next seat and said, “wow are we ever booking it through these clouds!” This despite the fact that the airliner is screeching through the air at 500 mph.
Yet flying 120 mph about 50 feet off the ground in a helicopter feels fast (butt-puckeringly fast, in fact, depending on how tall the trees are ;). And driving a Jet Ski at 35 mph directly on top of the water feels even faster.
Action alone doesn’t equal intensity.
Action seen through the right Perspective equals intensity.
In movies and comics, storytellers achieve perspective through staging. Here’s a brilliant example of the difference perspective can make (an example I stole from Mark Kennedy* over at Temple of the Seven Golden Camels):
Increasing A Sentence’s Intensity Through Perspective
Applying this principle to writing, we see that the action itself — that is, the verb — only creates real intensity when viewed through the right perspective. Watch how intensifying the verb alone doesn’t intensify the mental image all that much:
- “He hit me.”
- “He decked me.”
- “He Steven Seagal’d my ass.”
But once I change the perspective you get:
- “His fist freight-trained into my upper lip, snapping my head back into darkness.”
- or “My nose snapped underneath his knuckles, blackening my senses till I felt the cold floor tiles against my cheek.”
Verb-wise, “Steven Seagal’d” and “freight-trained” are about on par with one another, but the latter sentence creates a sharper mental image. Even more to the point, “snapped” isn’t nearly as vivid a verb as “Steven Seagal’d” but the intensity of that last sentence still trumps any of the first three.
Changing the Subject Changes the Perspective — and the Intensity
Despite the commonplace to ‘use strong verbs,’ a powerful verb tied to a week subject will only spin its wheels. Choosing the right subject foregrounds the action in the mind of the reader.
Here are a few more examples:
Ugly: “She walked languidly and suggestively down the stairs and greeted her guests.”
This sentence lamely attempts to convey the sexual overtones of the lady’s descent by slapping on an abundance of lame adverbs. Standard advice is, “replace adverbs with better verbs” — and that’s solid advice that yields something like this:
(Not so) Bad: “She cat-walked her way down the stairs, enchanting each of her male guests in turn.”
But changing the perspective, does what just improving the verbs alone can’t:
Pretty Good: “Her hips swayed with each step, beckoning her guests’ attention.”
Or “Her suitors’ eyes tracked each hip-sway and leg unveiling as she made her grand entrance down the staircase”
It works for Emotional Perspective too
Which sentence best captures the emotional sense of this photo?
b) Trudging the pavement, the man’s downcast eyes were met by dark shadows and the grim sidewalk of mean streets.
c) Darkness piled over the man’s downcast head, limiting his sight to a narrow patch of grim sidewalk and desolate street.
How much of the differences between these sentences involves verbs, and how much involves perspective?
Bottom Line: writing with strong verbs is great advice, but those action words won’t have their full impact or intensity until you provide the right perspective/subject.