Plane IntensityFly­ing wicked fast through the sky doesn’t feel fast at 36,000 feet.

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.

The Les­son:

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):

2009-12-10_0122

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:

  1. He hit me.”
  2. He decked me.”
  3. 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?

Dark Streeta) As he trudged along the pave­ment, the man’s down­cast eyes saw only the mean streets and dark pavement.

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.

* Appar­ently, Mark Kennedy got the mouse draw­ings from the Dis­ney book, The Illu­sion of Life.  Also, my thanks to Shane Arthur for ask­ing a ques­tion about strong verbs that prompted this post.

Comments

  1. Tom Wanek on 12.10.2009

    You rock Jeff! I get a lot of great writ­ing tips from other blogs (you know the ones ;), but this les­son on writ­ing with inten­sity is price­less. And here’s the thing, I’ve heard you talk about apply­ing per­spec­tive to writ­ing before. Sadly, I had for­got­ten all about it.

    And for the other read­ers, please don’t think I’m blow­ing smoke here because Jeff is a col­league of mine. Please try this tech­nique out for your­self. I promise it will take your writ­ing to new heights.
    .-= Tom Wanek´s last blog ..What You Are Say­ing And Who You Are Being =-.

  2. Roberta Rosenberg on 12.10.2009

    Bril­liant — thank you. I was think­ing of Michael’s Chabon’s writ­ing style as I slip-slided my way through the exam­ples.
    .-= Roberta Rosenberg´s last blog ..Maven­Tweets for 2009-12-09 =-.

  3. Sue Horner on 12.10.2009

    Great per­spec­tive on the impor­tance of strong verbs, some­thing we all know but do not per­haps work on as hard as we might.

  4. Teresa Dietze on 12.10.2009

    Impres­sive! This pre­sen­ta­tion is clear and imme­di­ate, draw­ing me in as a per­son as well as a writer. I am impressed as much by what you left out as what you included. Thank you for shar­ing your artistry.

    What I like best is that you are demon­strat­ing how to cre­ate depth of feel­ing and impact instead of sur­face action. You must live deep to do it.

    I love your quote also. And yes–there ARE demons in the deep. As a healer who addresses the energy issues related to what we call demons I can relate!

  5. Shane Arthur on 12.10.2009

    Jeff,
    My respect for this post Steven Seagal’d my ass. My muse snapped under the weight of its value, hum­bling my ego till I felt the cold real­ity that I need to rub more of your writ­ing against my brain.

  6. Jeff on 12.10.2009

    Shane,

    You crack me up ; ) Thanks for the comment.

    And thank you as well, Tom, Roberta, Sue, and Teresa!

    - Jeff
    .-= Jeff´s last blog ..Writ­ing Inten­sity — Going Beyond “Strong Verbs” =-.

  7. Shane Arthur on 12.10.2009

    She walked lan­guidly and sug­ges­tively down the stairs and greeted her guests.”

    This sen­tence reminded me of an anal­ogy I’d like to share.

    Let’s say you’re at work and some­one called you on the phone about a job inter­view you had that day with another com­pany. You want to keep it secret from cowork­ers nearby, so you would answer in code like, “The grass is indeed greener on the other side,” indi­cat­ing you got the job.

    She walked lan­guidly and sug­ges­tively down the stairs and greeted her guests,” is there­fore a sen­tence you’d want to “write in code,” i.e., hide how bad it is through revis­ing it.

    Hope that made sense.
    .-= Shane Arthur´s last blog ..shan­earthur: @MikeSigers There is no spoon! =-.

  8. Carole Mahoney on 12.11.2009

    Thanks Jeff! Your posts are always fun and chal­lenge my own per­spec­tive! Love the use of pho­tos for the “ah-ha– I get it now!”

  9. Suta on 12.11.2009

    This is what i called one of the qual­ity posts
    .-= Suta´s last blog ..Help­ful Infor­ma­tion Regard­ing Affil­i­ate Pro­grams =-.

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