by Arthur Plotnik.
ALL WE WRITERS CRAVE is to charge into the resistant, overloaded brain of a
reader and shoot forked lightning through every last dendrite. Why else, if not
to achieve high-voltage impact, do we push our own synapses into the red zone
night after night, year after year?
We are talking force here—the force that gets writing devoured, felt,
remembered and published. Lacking it, the world’s most crafted content fizzles
at the first neuron .
Force in writing needn’t always be nuclear-strength, any more than nonverbal
cues have to be violent or clangorous to seize attention. Think of a despairing
glance that pierces the heart, or a sound-squelching image like Scott Spencer’s
“botanical silence.” But to overcome a reader’s natural resistance to static,
sameness, and irrelevance, written words must somehow deliver the Godfather
imperative: This is a message you cannot refuse.
The ways of such force are legion, ranging from over-the-top exaggeration to
sly understatement. Classical rhetoricians described these techniques by the
hundreds. Writing programs pound away at a standard few, such as amped-up verbs
and pared-down verbiage. I would include these among the “knee-breakers” I’ve
found most persuasive in overcoming reader resistance. Here I offer you an even
dozen. You cannot refuse them: I know where you writers live.
1. Specificity. Why say “she ordered an appetizer” when you
can pucker the senses with “pickled herring” or “giant shrimp in Tyler’s ketchup
sauce”? We experience life in particulars, and they—not generalities— jolt our
memories and feelings. Name the telling things and actions as
specifically as you can, but don’t dilute their force by specifying everything.
2. Supercharged verbs. Every writer knows this
technique—”she savaged her steak ” rather than “she ate the steak
hungrily.” Find or create forceful verbs; rewrite “to be” and “to have”
sentences with action verbs. But writers beware: Overuse of forceful but trendy
verbs (she rocked a bikini) and the huffing of too many power verbs per
passage become transparently bush.
3. High performance modifiers. Like most words, adverbs and
adjectives have personalities: some are kickass powerful, others are
totally lame hangers-on. Unfortunately, the lamest ones have given the
whole class a bad name. But robust terms like venal, venomous,
strident, radiant, rousing, meteoric can be
the driving force of a passage. Contrary to myth, even “No-Adjective” Ernest
Hemingway used evocative modifiers—if sparingly—to trigger response. (” . . .
the sleigh-smoothed, urine-yellowed road”; “. . . three of the
big birds squatted obscenely.”) Pull your listless modifiers and plug
in high-performance ones where force counts.
4. Fresh intensifiers. Drop such overused, now-forceless
intensifiers as great, incredible, awesome, and
amazing from your writing unless you can recharge them, as in
skull-spinningly great or fall-to-your-knees awesome. Look for
or create Grade-A Intensifying Adverbs, the kind that give fresh emphasis to
commonplace adjectives: concussively stupid, sublimely stupid,
5. Sound words. Whomp. Whap.
Nuzzle. Guzzle. Words imitating sounds suggest the forces that
make the sounds. Even quiet forces—murmur of innumerable bees—grip the
imagination when evoked by “onomatopoeia,” as the technique is called. Sounds
make for resonance, whether as the THOOM! of graphic novels, the “KABOOOOM” of a
climactic literary passage (Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran
Foer), or the “boom, boom” of clogs amplifying a girl’s fears (The Lovely
Bones, Alice Sebold).
6. Surprise images. Apt and unexpected images, as in
metaphors, excite cerebral enzymes. “He had the complexion of baba ghanoush..” ”
His tongue darted into my mouth like a tadpole escaping from a jar.” (Marisha
Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics). Anticipated imagery such as
“she blushed tomato-red” excite nothing.
7. Nowness. Vogue terms and pop references carry the force
of novelty, fashion, and immediacy—for about one week to a year, after which
they become swiped-out. But used in their moment, especially in
journalism, they can be party-starters of Bieberesque boldness.
8. Street beat. Capture the rhythm and soul of the street,
and you gon’ be head of the situation, know’m sayin’? Who isn’t moved by echoes
of street life in all its raw effusiveness and funky phrasing? “Can’t kill
nothin and won’t nothin die.” Any street will do—any ethnic. “There’s a girl who
keeps bumping into you. You say to her, Pero mi amor, ya. And she says, Ya
(Junot Díaz, “The Cheater’s guide to Love.” ) The trick is to develop an ear
for authenticity and an eye for fit—within the overall tone and momentum of your
9. Big nature. Writers have always drawn on the energy of
natural forces—the violence of typhoons, the insistence of tides. Big nature
makes for mighty figures of speech: “She’s a Mount Saint Helens waiting to
erupt.” “There’s an ozone hole in his thinking.” But be creative; a maelstrom of
clichés lies in wait.
10. Tough talk / Irreverence. You talkin’ to me? Kiss
off. Make a hole. Go take your shoes for a walk while you still got legs.
To break through apathy, there’s nothing like defiant expression armored with
attitude, menace, slang and sometimes profanity. It can bear the force of
insult, of dire consequence, of all that thrills as it threatens. The usual
rules of execution apply: well timed and credible.
11. Understatement. Less can be overwhelmingly more when the
immensity, the irony—the joke—is snapped together in the reader’s mind. When Mom
says, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” alarms go off. The “not scantily endowed”
beauty sets hearts juddering. “Let’s take a little ride” is not what you want to
hear from Tony Soprano.
12. Torque through intensity. The ultimate force is an
aggregate effect—the various elements winding the spring, torquing the
intensity. It comes about via soul-jarring themes, characters in peril and on
the edge, smoldering conflict, inflamed dialogue, manic introspection. It
demands strategies and, yes, craft. My non-negotiable advice: go for it, element
by element. Whatever the outcome, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
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