Tag Archives: critiquing

Finding Powerful Actions

Action.


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That’s what gets an audience’s attention. It’s why we are engaged and why we are interested. Activity is what makes us want to me more involved in the characters, plot, setting and situation.

Without action, you have very little with which to engage your audience.

So how do we write with better action?

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My students struggle with this every year and so we have a talk about verbs. There are occasion verbs and being verbs and helping verbs—you know those auxiliary verbs. But those are kind of boring verbs. They do a lot of telling. No one wants to be told what to do. For teenagers, this statement really hits home; they are, after all the kings and queens of rebellion, are they not?

So, I tell them, we want to use POWERFUL verbs. And powerful verbs show rather than tell.

But again, telling them this is not nearly as effective as showing, so it then becomes example time.


THE MAN IS A MONSTER.


Is this showing or telling?

It’s telling—sure, you’ve told me the man is a monster but you have really limited what I know about him. I have no information about him other than ‘monster’. Do you mean literally? Figuratively? What has he done to make himself a monster? Is he an evil monster? A good monster? How do you define monster? You have really done nothing more than given a description and required too much work of your reader.

So, instead—show your audience and let them draw conclusions.


THE MAN RIPPED OFF THE SHEEP’S HEAD AND ATE THE EYEBALLS WITH A SICKENING SQUISHY CRUNCH.


Okay, now we’re talking. I still understand  that the guy is pretty monstrous, but now I am able to infer much more about him based on the action! You have told me 3x as much about the man and you didn’t have to do much more than change the wording to an action filled sentence.

BUT it did have to change.

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And that’s hard. Changing our writing habits is never easy. We fall into patterns and part of this makes up our own unique voice, but at the same time we have to be willing to change and adapt our work in order for it to reach its optimal potential.

So I start looking at my own work.

How often do I use powerful verbs?  This often makes me think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Mr. Keating is teaching his students the power of words. He tells them to“ avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.” When you search for the write words, you are able to create something magnificent, which is why one of the next scenes in the movie between Keating and Todd is so powerful:

John Keating: Close your eyes, close your eyes! Close ’em! Now, describe what you see.

Todd Anderson: Uh, I-I close my eyes.

John Keating: Yes.

Todd Anderson: Uh, and this image floats beside me.

John Keating: A sweaty-toothed madman.

Todd Anderson: A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.

John Keating: Oh, that’s *excellent*! Now, give him action – make him do something!

Todd Anderson: H-His hands reach out and choke me.

John Keating: That’s it! Wonderful, wonderful!

Todd Anderson: And all the time he’s mumbling.

John Keating: What’s he mumbling?

Todd Anderson: Mumbling truth.

John Keating: Yeah, yes.

Todd Anderson: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.

John Keating: [some of the class start to laugh] Forget them, forget them! Stay with the blanket. Tell me about that blanket!

Todd Anderson: Y-Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

[long pause then class applauds]

John Keating: Don’t you forget this.

I get chills every time I watch and think about this moment of recognition, of learning, of embracing language as a way to communicate on multiple levels. Because that’s what the goal of a writer is. To communicate.

Action.

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Stories and Lies

When I was a little girl I was taught that we do not lie for any reason. In my childish brain this meant that when you do something wrong or something that you are not supposed to do then you do not make up a story about it. If you do, then something on par with a lightning strike coming down from the very heavens might come and strike you down or the earth might swallow you whole. Despite this engrained fear of fabrication, I still managed to distinguish the stories that are regarded as lies from the stories that are considered creative writing genius. From this moment of eminent discovery, I have been spitting out stories in as many ways as I can and preparing to one day teach writing to others. During spring cleaning this year, I stumbled across this pure writing genius from the late 1990s entitled “Twisted Kidnapping”.

                 My Father was killed in a freak accident about 6 months ago. He went out with some friends one night, and got drunk. When he was walking to his car he ran out right in front of a Pepsi truck and was killed instantly. My Mother was killed after giving birth to her sixth boy. After her death, about 2 months ago, all my brothers were sent to an orphanage 2 blocks down. I’m 16 so they let me stay at my preacher,   Herman Mister’s, house until further notice. He was a very nice man. One day he gave me this letter that said I was to stay at my Uncle Bert’s house. I’ve never met my Uncle so I had no idea what to expect. I set out immediately for my uncle’s house. The letter said that my uncle lived in a town called Clarence Ville. About 2 days later I arrived at Clarence Ville. I stopped a young man, at about the age of 20, to ask him about how to get to Bert’s house. “Excuse me…?” “The name’s Clarence “I, um I’m Peanut McDoodle, do you know where I can find Mr. Bert?” “Well sure, but you don’twant to find him!?” “Yes I do.” “If you say so, He lives in that log cabin over there.” “Thanks, by the way, did they name this town after you ?” “No, well yes, you see every man or boy’s name is Clarence, and every woman or girl’s name is Clare.” “Oh, okay, well thanks again! Later!” “Bye” What a strange town I thought. _____________________________ I looked up and up and up. My Uncle’s house was at least 5 stories tall. I felt like screaming and running away. The house was a dirt brown color with a chimney that is cement and gray. Next to the house was a half finished water tower. It is yellow orange and red striped all the way up. To where the builder left off. Just as I was getting up enough nerve to knock on the door, it opened! Out came a man, the ugliest man I’ve ever seen! He had at least 2 warts on his nose and 1 on his cheek, It made me so sick1 “Who are YOU???the man said in a bossy, sassy ,snobby ,voice. “I’m P-P-Peanut McDoodle, sir.” “My brother’s son?” “Yes.” “Well, come in, come in. You must be hungry, eat some of this bread, then I’ll show you to your room” True to his word right after a slice of bread he led me up the stairs to the fifth story bedroom. As soon as I stepped inside the room, he locked the door. “Hey, HEY! Let me OUT! LET ME OUT!?” I screamed. When no one answered I sat down and started to think. I had a PLAN! ______________________________ THUMP!! “What are you doing up there boy?” No answer. “I said What are you……?” He stopped short when he opened his door. There were bed sheets hanging out of the window and the mattress was lying on the ground. Suddenly out of no where the boy jumped out right in front of Bert, kicked him the ankle and ran locking the door behind him. As soon as he got outside he pulled the bed sheets down and moved the mattress out from in front of the window. He looked around and saw a bag of rabid chipmunks. Probably meant for me I thought. Well I‘ll just use his powers against him!! I through the bag in the window and sat outside the door with a shot gun in handy. There was a loud scream and silence. Abducted by WHAT? About 2 days after my Uncle’s death as I was finishing the water tower when a grey hound bus pulled up. Someone stepped out took me by the hand and forced me on the bus, and knocked me over the head, I passed out. When I finally came to a 3 foot chipmunk was handing me a piece of bread. Ok. Now I have seen a lot in my life, but a 3 foot chipmunk? That’s when I saw him, Clint Eastwood. I was so surprised I passed out again. When I came to again I saw many pictures on the walls. Pictures of Mars and the Moon and all the other Planets. I was very stunned.

I didn’t edit this at all, simply copied and pasted. What it shows is an immature but deep appreciation for storytelling and writing—and the personality of a young girl who had a creative mind, a healthy imagination and a respect for distinguishing fact from fiction. Writing is not a science. It does not have a perfect formulaic equation that will work every time to produce a perfect work of art (Clearly! Just read the above again!). However, there are certain skills that we can teach ourselves and students in order to produce better expository, persuasive and creative writing. Most people know the steps of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising and proofing. However, just knowing the steps to the writing process is not enough to succeed in the process, there has to be something more. When I was in the fourth grade, I was a terrible writer. My diction and grammar were horrible and messy. It was this time period that solidified my belief in learning and teaching good writing skills and the encouragement that needs follow to help each kid find their niche. I still remember one of the papers that I wrote in fourth grade. I do not have a hard copy of it anymore, but I remember what it was that caused it to stick in my memory so forcefully. It wasn’t the organization or the diction, but rather the comments my teacher made. It was a creative writing assignment that I wrote about a girl who was lying to her mother about keeping a skunk in her room as a pet. The skunk gave off a terrible odor one day when her mother came into check up on the girl, but instead of telling her mother the truth, the girl lied and made the excuse that she had ‘farted.’ My teacher was impressed with my ability to cultivate a story that complex at my age, which was the kind of encouragement that I was used to from my teachers. But that is not what I remember the most. After she praised my story, she told me that using the word ‘fart’ in a paper was inappropriate. That dumbfounded me. It seems to me that in writing, and in teaching writing, it is difficult to say to a student that they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because it is the unconventional creative writers that thrive.  However, had the piece been non-fiction or expository her comment would have had more of a foundation, because different kinds of diction are required for the various types of writing. My teacher’s comment has taught me what I want to pass on to others about writing as a process, but even more importantly, it educated me on what I do not want to pass on. Instead of teaching formulas, writing requires an initial demonstration of methodology followed by intense practice. Since my fourth grade epiphany, I have been perfecting this theory. Often during my education courses we were encouraged to be supportive of students’ work. We were told to use reinforcement instead of punishment in order to fully develop the students’ abilities. This kind of thinking applies to teaching writing too, but more importantly we should encourage the students to find themselves in their writing. Much of the writing process is recognizing yourself as a writer.  Becoming  aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer helps you to improve your own work. Commenting on style, appreciating uniqueness and encouraging creativity can all help a others recognize their own writing niche. Once a writer identifies their own voice they can work with it to make it the best it can possibly be. However, if the voice remains foreign, the writer’s understanding is inhibited by confusion. The writer spends most of their time scrambling to make sense out of the unknown and falls behind as a result. As teachers, writers and critiquers, it is our job to facilitate the discovery of the self to help each other become thriving writers. Many of these comments and ideas are theories, ideas I have learned in school which will help me, but not nearly as much as experience. Just like Scientific theories must be tested, so must writing theories. Because my parents taught me not to lie, I discovered how to write.  My fourth grade teacher encouraged me to create, and so I formulated an opinion on teachers and writing. I have had many good teachers who have taught me about subject matter and theory, but experience has been the best teacher that I have ever had, so I end up with stories that read more like this:

          Eerie quiet hugged the house in the early morning hours. Feeling like an intruder, Andi made herself continue for the door instead of returning to the comfort of the upstairs bedroom. Once outside, she took calculating steps down to the lawn, where she sat down with her legs stretched out in front of her. She felt her muscles tighten in protestation as she reached for her toes, sheltered by her faithful, worn Shox TL Nike—the most expensive running shoe around. As she sat up again, her muscles gave a sigh of relief before pinching up again as the cycle continued. During her warm up, her mind carefully planned the perfect run that would circle the front yard, bringing her up by then fence, then down around the barn and finally back up by the house. Not exactly the Olympic track Michael Johnson would have chosen, but satisfactory for the stress relief that she needed at that particular moment in time. Her thoughts were running loose and she wanted to return them to the Alcatraz of her mind. Both legs felt ready for their work out as she shook them out, the laces flailing and thumping on the black and blue polyurethane shox columns. Her legs pumped up and down, grinding the dirt beneath her feet as she jogged in place. Then, as if a starting gunshot had pierced the air, she took off around the yard, pushing herself, slowly at first and then faster and faster. She circled two times before the tears of frustration started to fall. They carved dirt caked trenches down her face and neck and blinded her with their glistening salty sting. Then her nose began to run, causing her to sniffle and snuff as she gasped for breath around the obnoxious emotions. Pushing herself to run harder and faster, she made the next two laps in record time in her attempt to escape the tantalizing voices in her head. But the faster she ran, the louder they became. On her fifth lap, she began to feel weak and slowed down as she made her way up by the fence. With a surge of adrenaline, she forced herself to sprint for the barn, seeing nothing. She’d barely made it around when her foot caught on the roots of the grass and she fell like a giraffe, head over heels until she was nothing but a heap of dirt-caked human, a peachy-brown contrast to the Bermuda green grass.

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Open up your mind to the stories within.
(Door to SECCA house in Winston Salem, NC)