Breathe Life Into Stories

monkeyYour story seems flat. You knew that even before writing group members confirmed your suspicion. You’ve been working on descriptions. You’ve double-checked details to be sure give readers have a clear picture of the situation.

You’ve scattered plenty of sensory description through your story, without clumping it or making it sound like you used a checklist. It still seems flat and shallow. How can you make it pop off the page? What magic will breathe life into it and connect with readers?

A clue to a solution lies in this excerpt from a scene in Dinty Moore’s memoir, The Accidental Buddhist, where Moore is being exposed to the ancient art of meditation in a Buddhist monastery:

… I turn out to have a particularly unrelenting monkey. He not only swings from tree to tree, he rips off big green leaves and chatters at the top of his monkey lungs, an angry baboon somehow set loose in an espresso bar.

Zen students will immediately recognize this monkey as a metaphor for the state of Moore’s mind. That metaphor brings mental chaos into focus as something tangible, something we can see and hear, and at least imagine touching and smelling.

Moore’s static image of  sitting zazen on a zafu* snaps to life with this metaphor. I hope he will forgive me for taking the liberty of publicly imagining how he might have initially written the thought in that paragraph:

… I have a terrible case of monkey mind. I can’t stay focused on anything for longer than a second….

That simple statement would suffice to describe the situation, but it leaves me yawning and my monkey mind swings into another tree, maybe to find coconuts to lob at his. In the completed version, his napkin sketch image has become a mind movie with depth and dimension as the monkey swings from tree to tree, rips leaves and chatters.

Some simpler examples:

Her eyes were lively. Her eyes sparkled.
The scene was picturesque. Hundred-foot oaks and maples stood guard behind the cabin, wildflowers dotted the meadow, and …
The scent of wild roses was in the air. Wild roses wafted scent through the air.

The first two examples above use a form of “to be” to link to an adjective describing the subject. In the third example, “in the air” is an participial phrase that tells where the scent was. Don’t worry about remembering that term. The important thing is that functionally the phrase gives additional information about the subject without imparting any sense of vitality.

Using a “be” verb this way is grammatically correct and adds variety in sentence structure, but this wording has a calming effect. Switching to an active verb, as the second column shows, is one of the many ways to liven up your language.

Keep an eye out for was, were, and related forms that link to subject modifiers, and replace them with stronger verbs and additional details when appropriate.

Write now: Review a story you wrote and underline each place you use a verb that links to an adjective or other subject modifier. Circle each active linking verb (smells, feels, proves …). Rewrite the other sentences to include some motion or sense of action.

*Standard usage puts foreign words in italics. Adding the English translation immediately after the italicized term is optional. Whichever form you choose, be consistent throughout your story.


KathyPooler said...

Sharon, You've shown so clearly how choice of words, especially verbs and their placement within a sentence really make a difference. Very helpful. Thsnks!

Sharon said...

Thanks Kathy, there's always something new to learn. Thank heavens even our scribbled drafts can be understood, and what fun to learn a bit here, a bit there, to refine the ore into gold.

SuziCate said...

Those "to be" or passive sentences do us in every time! It's all about ACTION ACTION ACTION! I usually go back and check myself to see if my story is active, and I often surprise myself at how many times I have slipped...thank goodness for edits and self critiques (as long as I don't do myself in with them!)

Wayne Groner said...

Your "public imagining" contrast is another useful example of show-rather-than-tell.

Sharon said...

Thanks Wayne. I enjoy the fact that giving example of showing vs. telling is like taking the concept to the next level or something like that.

Sharon said...

SuziCate, you have a good reminder here that drafts can and should be written however they tumble out, and then we fix them. One thing I especially like about this new Disqus commenting system is that you can edit comments after posting. Way cool! I often word them awkwardly, make a typo, or think of one more thought, right AFTER I click to post.

Pat said...

Makes me aware of my need to hone my skills at making my choice of words more alive.

Sharon said...

Honing writing skills is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It's also fun! And endless. There is always more to learn.

Sharon said...

I suggest that people who comment take a minute and sign up for a Disqus ID. I did that a couple of years ago, and it makes it easy to comment on lots of sites with a clickable name without using a social media ID, which I would not dream of doing. You'll see the option as you post.

Ian Mathie said...

This is a most thought provoking article which could make an excellent chapter in a handbook, not just for memoir writers, but for all those who would tell stories, either in print or orally.
From your description I guess we must all have monkeys in our minds and trying to dragoon them into a conforming troop is the most difficult job any writer faces. Then again, there are many different kinds of monkeys and they hall behave in different ways, which further complicates the task of instilling order in their performance. I have at least fifteen different breed in my brain!
Writing about Africa as I do, the problem becomes even more complicated as this is the natural habitat of my monkeys and they are adept at living in the bush and doing precisely what they want. What chance do I have, then, of making sense of the incomprehensible for my readers?
To a large extent i ignore my monkeys until they actually intrude in the story I'm trying to tell. That generally occurs about the third editing stage when I am trying to feel my way though what the reader might be taking in. Up to then I have been solely concerned with putting together what I want to convey. Now, in the polishing stages I address and try to take control of my monkeys.

Sharon said...

Ian, I've read your African series and chuckled at your reminder that Arica is the natural habitat of (your) monkeys. Mine tend to prefer New Mexico or the Pacific Northwest as home. Who ever thought of that?! Thanks for the colorful observations.