Word nerds, you’ll want to stock up on yellow highlighters for Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Constance Hale’s newest book on writing and language. In her follow-up to Sin and Syntax, Hale, a journalist and writing teacher, autopsies and deifies verbs. Verbs, nerds! From whence they came; and why good writing can’t exist without them. After reading this book, you’ll find your fingers unwilling to curl around the phrases “there is” and “there are,” even when the occasion demands it. Your nouns will expect equal respect. You won’t rage quite so hard at the passive voice, or fear the indicative.
Think of the book as a sprightly braided history of the English language; pass/fail case studies from newspapers, magazines, fiction and even advertising; a technician’s guide to how sentences actually work; inspirational takeaways; a short history of dictionaries and snippets from Twitter and Facebook conversations. (“What’s your favorite verb?” Hale once asked her Facebook friends, offering that she liked lunge, emerge and cajole.) Be challenged by Hale’s ideas of ruthlessness in sentence building (in making better sentences we tell better stories), and be emboldened by the permission to return to the magic of language, which made us love stories in the first place. “Joan Didion once wrote, ‘Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power.’ Isn’t this how we all feel?” Hale writes. “We sense hidden mysteries, but feel clueless about how to solve them. Words like gerund or subjunctive make us anxious. The antidote to anxiety is mastery, and the way to mastery is play.”
For narrative journalists, the Vex lessons orient toward observation, construction and precision. “What I want writers to understand is that every sentence is a little drama,” Hale tells Storyboard. We caught up with her this week to talk about the book and about this Saturday’s sold-out East Meets West conference, the intimate storytelling confab that she organizes at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. (This year’s speakers include The New Yorker’s Alan Burdick, the Los Angeles Times’ Thomas Curwen, Wired’s Bill Wasik, travel writer Bonnie Tsui and Crown editor Vanessa Mobley.)
Check back tomorrow for that conversation. In the meantime, enjoy some quick hits from Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch:
If the indicative is even handed and leads to an even tone, the imperative is anything but. This is the voice of bold directives, confident brands and bossy narrators.
The imperative can be quite useful to cast a character or to convey a balance of power. In Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, the caring but consumptive Ralph Touchett, who often seems like the picture of passivity, is in love with his cousin, Isabel Archer. Unable to consummate his love for Isabel, the lady of the title, Ralph throws his remaining energy (and fortune) into her. In one moment when Isabel is about to make a fateful decision, he says:
You’ve too much power of thought – above all too much conscience. … It’s out of all reason, the number of things you think wrong. Put back your watch. Diet your fever. Spread your wings; rise above the ground. It’s never wrong to do that.
The imperative is alive and well in contemporary narratives, too. Here’s an interior monologue from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A drug-addled and paranoid Ken Kesey, alone in a house in Puerta Vallarta, is afraid that each passing car contains Mexican police coming to catch him. Wolfe imagines Kesey giving himself a serious imperative talking-to:
Haul ass, Kesey. Move. Scram. Split flee hide vanish disintegrate. Like run.
A stylish writer has a command of language, literary devices, supple sentences, and tone – as well as a distinctive voice. But literary style is more than the sum of these parts: It is writing that – in some way – underscores or complements the subject at hand.
Take the following passage in All the Pretty Horses, when Cormac McCarthy describes his characters leaving the ranch in Texas and setting off on an adventure to Mexico:
They rode out along the fence line and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.
It’s easy to get caught up in McCarthy’s allusions (the bell that tolled) and his metaphors (the tenantless night, the young thieves in the glowing orchard), but let’s not lose sight of the sentences. Notice how nicely the subjects and predicates work here, with the repetition of “they rode” keeping us grounded as the sentences get more and more wild. The rhythm of the individual sentences echoes the gait of the horses – it starts out short and staccato as the horses pick their way through corrals, gathers steam as they canter across a pasture, and then takes off into a gallop as they head out under the infinite night sky.
The art of verbs isn’t an art of invention. It’s the art of observation – learning to see dynamism in everyday events. In 1715, the Duc de Saint-Simon penned his memoirs, recording the scenes and characters he had witnessed at Versailles. Louis XIV had taken a dislike to him, but the duke’s informers, ranging from viscounts to servants, gave him extraordinary information – from juicy secrets to petty gossip. His account of “The King’s day” is a classic chronicle, filled with common verbs:
At eight o’clock, the valet on duty, who had slept in the King’s room and was already up, wakened the King. The chief doctor, the chief surgeon, and his nurse (as long as he was alive) all came in together. The nurse kissed him; the others rubbed him down, and often changed his shirt, for he perspired heavily. The grand chamberlain … was summoned at eight fifteen with all those who had full access. Someone would draw open the bed curtains and present holy water from the bedside stoup. The lords hovered around the bed, and if one had something to tell the King, the others turned away …
This account has been translated, but even in the original French version it is straightforward in the actions it describes: waking, coming in, kissing, rubbing down – one action after another. Especially in genres like travel writing, where “first-this then-this” accounts are enlivened by writers with an eye for action, journals like the Duc de Saint Simon’s are pure inspiration.
Constance Hale is the author of Sin and Syntax and Wired Style. She recently wrote an eight-part series on sentences, “Draft,” for the New York Times’ Opinionator section. A Hawaii native with an English Literature degree from Princeton and a master’s in journalism from UC Berkeley, she worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in California before becoming the copy chief at Wired. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Smithsonian, Health and Honolulu, and ran the former Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and the Nieman Narrative Digest, a precursor to Storyboard.