©2010 by Robert J Ray and Jack Remick
When I teach style in a writing workshop, I have the writers circle nouns and verbs. Concrete nouns and strong verbs build word-pictures. A good example is the opening to A Farewell to Arms (1929), where a stationary narrator checks out the terrain of story: “In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” There are two abstract nouns in this opening sentence – summer and year – and five concrete nouns: house, village, river, plain, mountains. The ratio of concrete nouns to abstract is 5:2, enough concrete nouns to paint a picture that locks down the opening of the novel.
The view in this Hemingway opening is panoramic, like a wide-angle photograph or a landscape painting. The narrator is First Person. The collective pronoun “we” links the narrator – a volunteer ambulance driver from the American midwest in search of love and adventure in the Great War of 1914-1918 – to his ambulance driver buddies. The word-picture in this opening line puts an implied distance between the narrator in the village and the fighting in the mountains, where the Italian Army does battle with the Austrian Army.
In that distant war, the Italians fought on the Allied side, “allied” with England and France and, near the end of the war, America. The Austrians fought with the Germans and the Turks. The distance in this opening line comes from the verb of perception (looked) and the adverb of distance (across). The writer uses the generic nouns (River, Plain, Mountains) to paint a panoramic word picture about physical safety. A generic noun is more concrete than abstract because it still appeals to our sense perception. You can see a River, but as yet the river has no name. The message of this opening is: stay in the generic village and you stay alive. Leave the village for the archetypal mountains and you get hurt.
In sentence number two of Hemingway’s opening, the narrator looks at the river running through the village: “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.” Not a single abstract noun to fuzz-up the word-picture in this sentence packed with seven concrete nouns – bed, river, pebbles, boulders, sun, water, channels. The narrator looks down; he is not moving, his eye is a Camera Eye. The river is closer, but still with no name. The water is the only thing moving in this still landscape, but that is about to change.
In a style workshop, I guide the writers to painting and photography. Think of yourself, I say, as a painter with brushes, a canvas, an easel on a tripod. Think of yourself as a photographer with a zoom lens. In writing, you might start with generic nouns in the middle distance. Then bring the word-picture closer with concrete nouns. Painting a picture of what the Eye sees is solid writing. It’s a hundred times more interesting than a cozy expository chat in Armored Prose that explains what the narrator is looking at. You can read more about armored prose.
If the writers are not convinced by two sentences, I add sentence number three from Hemingway. There is more movement here, bringing the symbolism of troops marching to disturb the surface of the static panorama of river and plain: “Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.” The soldiers march along the road; the road leads across the river and the plain from sentence one to the mountains. Three word-pictures join to make one word-picture that grows larger and more powerful with each sentence. The writing is smooth. There is steady movement without a thundering herd of strong verbs. The verbs get stronger in the third sentence with raised and powdered. Let’s use a grid to check the noun-noun ratio.
Analysis: The three sentences from A Farewell to Arms have a combined total of 75 words. Total number of nouns is 20. The ratio of concrete to abstract is 18:2 or 9:1. Sentence one is a static picture. Sentence two is a river moving. Sentence three is troops marching. Writing like this comes from making stylistic choices. When writers write the first draft, they ignore style while they go for story and character, heat and voltage. That’s a good way to go.
On the rewrite, it’s smart to assess the language with Operation Ratio. Ratio measures the weight of certain words in a designated prose passage. Weight is a guide to making stylistic choices, to sharpen the eye for the rewrite. Writers hurry too much. We should all you take the time to weigh the words before we attack the pages with a fierce line-edit. Take the time to develop a solid strategy for the rewrite. With a strategy, a plan, you won’t waste fuel. You will see real progress, itself a concrete, verifiable measure of satisfaction and writerly self-worth.
Style: Kill Those Adverbs
Working with verbs in a writing workshop is your chance to destroy LY adverbs like virtually, totally, administratively, hopefully, feelingly, adoringly, allegedly. Long adverbs that end in the suffix LY are like weeds. They take up space in the garden of words. They choke your chances for making word-pictures. The LY adverb, while it indicates emotion in the speaker, is confusing for the listener-reader. To watch LY adverbs at work, turn to the evening news, where the newscaster tries to sound human: “Hopefully, they will be able to bring those soldiers back home soon.” When we talk, an adverb works like a place-holder, stalling for time while we think of the perfect word.
To teach verbs and LY adverbs in a writing workshop, I bring in a quote from a famous writer. I read the quote, make the writers guess who wrote it. Then I analyze the passage, using Operation Ratio. Read the passage and take a guess at the famous author:
“….and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought – frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon….”
Here the narrator preens, backs away, prances, hesitates, steps aside, inches forward, stands back. The nouns are abstract (preoccupation, revelation) and generic (college, sleep, griefs). Only one noun, “horizon,” leans toward creating a word-picture. The narrator, a college man, is using pompous language to wink at the reader about his friendship with Gatsby.
The verbs are distant, soft, weak, coy. Two are passive voice; one is interior:
was (unjustly) accused of being
Out of seven verbs, only “was quivering” – joined with “horizon” makes a word-picture. The other six verbs cloak the narrative voice in irony. Page One of The Great Gatsby opens with the narrator telling the reader he’s not to blame. The narrator, Nick Carraway, accepts no responsibility. He’s the narrator, the objective observer, and his core story is Coming of Age. The verbs show that the narrator of The Great Gatsby is a perfect choice for the job. He hides behind his observer mask. He is the innocent who connects Daisy to Gatsby.