Twelve Non-Negotiable Elements of Force in Writing
This is a guest post 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, weapons-grade 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 yourself.”
(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 narrative.
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.
Arthur Plotnik is an acclaimed editor and author whose eight books include the newly revised and expanded The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts Into Words (2012) and the recent Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (2011). He lives in Chicago.