Masterful Verbs and Adjectives Part 2

Last week we looked at some of the creative usages of nouns, verbs, and adjectives by my favorite author Patricia A. McKillip. Masterful writing isn’t just about big-picture stuff, such as crafting strong scenes or riveting action. It drills down to the individual words, for these sole bits are the building blocks of our sentences, paragraphs, worlds.

As I mentioned, simple five-cent words can pack powerful punches and be much more effective than using a pouch full of five-dollar words, but there is something to be said for a common word used in a perhaps unusual way or context. That word snags us, adding dimension, color, and new perspective. It gives us pause, sparks our imagination, enriches the meaning of a sentence.

This week I’m going to share with you a few more passages from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Robert Hansen. This novel, which is written to feel like a biography (and is practically one, since it’s a dramatization of the facts of James’s life), reveals a masterful use of words and phrasing, particularly in the verbs Hansen chooses.

Take a look at these passages and note these nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Consider how many writers would have opted for the dull, obvious words. But Hansen took time to come up with other, potent choices, and this elevates the writing from common to stellar.

Charlie stabbed at the dirt with a stick or pinched scarlet eruptions on his shoulder and neck or measured the others with sidelong glances. Then a boy in a gray stovepipe hat emerged from the snaggles and claws of the woods and reached into the blue smoke of the fire and praised the miscellaneous stew and principally slouched about doing fraudulent chores in order to eavesdrop on Jesse. At last Clarence Hite relinquished his seat and the boy pushed John Bugler aside and capered over boots and legs and wormed down next to Charley Ford with the incivility and intrusion that bespoke brotherhood. . . . The boy nodded like a horse whenever Jesse’s words seemed to want affirmation; whenever Jesse leavened his chat with humor  the younger Ford boy laughed overloudly and infectiously with whoops and idiotic rises, like a knuckle-run on a piano. His were the light-checkered blue eyes that never strayed, the ears that picked up each nuance and joke, the amen looks that suggested he understood Jesse as no one else could.

I note more than a dozen fresh and uncommon words or usages of those words that infuse this passage with wonderful texture and visuals. Note, too, how the writing style (author’s voice) is so appropriate for the era he is trying to evoke. It wouldn’t do for the vernacular or sentence structure to sound like twenty-first century narrative.

Here are some other passages:

Bob was scraping his stew out of a blue envelope. Juice broke from a corner and spoiled his trouser fly in a manner that suggested incontinence. . . . He flapped the envelope into the fire and licked his spoon with a hound’s care before submerging it in his pocket.

They skidded a rain-surrendered cottonwood tree down the bank and horsed it over the polished steel rails, ripping bark away from the bone-colored wood. They carried limestone and sandstone and earth-sprinkling rocks that were the sizes of infants and mild cans and sleeping cats, and these they hilled and forted about the tree as shovels sang and picks splintered and inveigling footpaths caved in along the vertical Blue Cut excavations. . . . Shadows grew into giants and died as the sun burned orange and sank. . . . until a night wind channeled east on the tracks and carried the insects away, even tore the ash of cigarettes and battened light coats over backs on the higher exposures. . . . leaves sailed like paper darts and the air carried the tang of cattle and hogs and chimney smoke.

The imagery and sensual sensory detail Hansen creates with his choice of specific words makes the narrative of his novel extremely tactile and experiential. Your mind explodes with these images (picture rock like infants or sleeping cats–not just cats but sleeping ones, evoking the smooth roundness of a cat curled up).

Rocks aren’t piled, they are “forted.” This evokes other images, of more than just a pile of rocks. They don’t just pull the downed tree, they “horse” it over the rails, implying a rich visual image. It’s word association at its best.

Here’s another (you’ll find this mastery on every single page of Hansen’s book):

Charley Ford stepped over and struck Henry Fox over the skull with his pistol, the concussion like gloved hands clapping loudly once, like a red apple pitched at a tree. The blow chopped the messenger down to his knees with blood shoelacing his face and the baggagemaster backed to the green wall with horror as Liddil said “You didn’t have to bop him, Charley.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once elaborated in an interview how small, specific details make a sentence believable. Just by adding the color yellow to an unbelievable event or noting the specific number of birds and what kind that flew into a window creates credibility. This is a great lesson, writers!

Hansen doesn’t just mention an apple; it’s a red apple. It’s not at all important that the apple is red. But adding that one adjective makes the incident not just more believable, it makes it more visual. We can picture Charley smacking Henry with the pistol better when we envision a red apple hitting the trunk of a tree.

Did you pick up on the verbs  chopped and shoelacing? This is Hansen’s mastery at work. He often takes a noun (shoelace) and turns it into a verb. I’ve never seen an author do this so effectively and creatively in a novel.

I’ll share one last passage:

He had headaches that were fierce as icepicks behind his eyes. The cottage was wreathed by high bushes and lowering tress so it was as gloomy as twilight through the afternoon, and Jesse would sit alone in that eerie calm like broken furniture surrendered to a black lagoon. He’d purchased a contraption for peeling apples that he would dismantle and oil and reassemble, but his rifles dulled with smut, his horses ganted in their barn stalls, he wore the same clothes for weeks. He was . . . like a man enfeebled with a stroke.

Take time to consider every word when you’re crafting your sentences. To write masterfully, you need to understand the big-picture items: novel and scene structure, plot and character arc, the balance of narrative and dialogue and action.

But don’t stop where so many writers stop, which is opting for the easiest, obvious word choices. Your genre may dictate that you don’t get too “fancy” with your prose. But regardless of genre, when you push for better words—better nouns, verbs, and adjectives, in particular—and you find ones that add texture and sensory detail and evoke imagery in readers’ heads, you will be on your way to masterful writing.

Your thoughts on the passages? What words or phrases stood out to you as masterful? What did learn from Hansen’s writing?




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  1. “He had headaches that were fierce as icepicks behind his eyes.”

    This can be further improved upon by deleting the redundant “that were” clause, and the same goes for “behind his eyes” since, where else would his headache be? Another advantage or benefit of deleting “behind his eyes”, is that the reader is left with “icepicks” as the image making the strongest impression. “behind the eyes”, saps energy from the noun, “icepicks.”

    “He’d purchased a contraption for peeling apples [that] he would dismantle and oil and reassemble, but his rifles dulled with smut, his horses ganted in their barn stalls, he wore the same clothes for weeks.”

    “that” can be deleted here as well.

    Just as in Scandinavian languages, many American writers seem to suffer from “clause redundancy”, “that is” causes sentences to be irksome to read, with less flow, particularly in the long run. If a sentence reads just as well without the “that is” clause”, delete it.


    1. I prefer the way he has written all these. It fits his narrator voice, the era (1860s, which is important with every word of narrative and speech). Without that, you read “peeling apples he would dismantle . . .” which is awkward. And if you don’t say “behind his eyes,” you don’t know that the pain is behind his eyes and not somewhere else in his head. Specifics make for better imagery and believability. Too often writers take out words, thinking there are rules (such as remove that or never use was or were).

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but it comes across as overdone. I think he’s mimicking Mark Twain’s corncobby Huck Finnish.

  3. All, great phrases and descriptions, those sort of, wish-I’d-thought-of-that moments, but tacked together? Nah, overdone, wordy.

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