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Stood up, Walked Over and Grabbed – Ways to Avoid Dull Words

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing

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Question: I saw on your daily notes that I need to stop using “grabbed.” I know you weren’t talking to me but I recognized myself anyway. How about an example? What’s wrong with stood?

Fair enough – The problem with stood and grabbed is that neither of them adds anything to the narrative. They focus on what the character does, and not how or why. I’ll use my regular heroines of Nancy and Jane to illustrate.

Example 1 – Improve the Verbs

Jane stood up and walked to the refrigerator for a cold beer. She opened the door, grabbed a bottle and opened it.

…or…

Getting out of the chair left Nancy woozy. The scuffing sound of her mules on the linoleum was as dull as Nancy felt. Twisting the cap off a cold beer used up the last of her energy.

In Jane’s example, there’s no clue how Jane is feeling. Nancy’s obviously tired, perhaps even sick. The solution isn’t finding synonyms for walk and grab, but focusing the narration on more interesting details and leaving out the things the reader fills in without thinking. There’s no need to say Nancy walked and grabbed, not when we hear her footsteps and watch her twist the cap off the beer.

Example 2 – Let the Reader Fill in the Blanks

Jane grabbed her coffee, notebook and keys and walked out the door to her car.

…or…

Juggling her notebook and coffee, Nancy locked the front door on her way to her car.

Jane’s example is a dull recitation of the steps she’s taking to leave the house. Nancy’s example has more visual impact (juggling versus grabbed). She must have her keys if she’s locked the door. Even a detail like locking the door is pretty dull, unless later when Nancy returns she finds the door unlocked.

Example 3 – Focus on Mood not Activity

I’d probably skip that part altogether in favor of better setting the mood with:

Nancy was halfway to the office by the time she’d drunk enough coffee to wake up. A gritty-eyed glance at the seat next to her confirmed she’d remembered her notebook.

In this example, the reader’s attention is not on objects grabbed or how the character has relocated. Instead the focus is on sleep deprivation and gritty eyes. The reader is wondering about Nancy’s state of mind.

Example 4 – But Yes, You Can Use Them

Because all rules are meant to be broken, here are ways you can use these verbs, when they add to the scene in context.

Nancy snatched the keys out of Jane’s hand. Jane grabbed them back. Fixing Jane with a steely gaze, Nancy slowly stood up. Forced to crane her head back to maintain eye contact, Jane lost her equilibrium. The next thing she knew she was slung over Nancy’s shoulder. “Fine,” she slurred, her head spinning. “You drive.”

I’m much better with examples than explaining, so I hope these help.

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Comments 2

  1. You probably know it too — it’s so much faster to just show someone how you’d do it, and it takes forever to explain why. I once spent a paragraph explaining this problem I’d seen in a manuscript to Julia Watts, who replied, “Yes, verb series can be problematic.” Every time I write about Jane and Nancy I get more and more intrigued, too. *g*

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