Your 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.