After my recent post about Stieg Larsson, I got an itch to compare his verbs to some other writers'. Not that verbs are the biggest problem with Larsson's writing. Far from it. Still, I was curious. So here is an inventory of verbs from a page of Larsson's "The Girl Who Played with Fire," a page of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and a page of Stephen King's "Just After Sunset."
I list these verbs in their base forms -- i.e. "had been" and "were" are listed as "be." Verbs forming independent clauses are in all caps. Verbs forming subordinate clauses are lowercase. Participial modifiers are not counted as verbs.
Larsson, page 414 -- 18 sentences:
3. RECALL, HAVE, be
6. BE, FIND, find
7. BE, gnaw
8. NOTICE, take, keep
9. BE, BE, summarize
10. HAVE, BE, clear out, throw
12. BE, FIND
13. SEE, remove, deal with
14. SPEND, MISS, COME, HAVE
15. FIND, contain
16. GO, try, find
18. DISCOVER, GO, USE
McCarthy, page 136 -- 15 sentences
1. bend, see, FEAR, be, put
2. GO, CROSS
3. SET, TAKE, PUNCH, PUNCH, DRAIN
4. PULL, POUR
5. TWIST, MAKE, POUR, PUT, SHAKE
6. POUR, TAKE, STUFF
7. TAKE, GET, STRIKE
8. TRY, STOP, POUR
9. FLARE, say
11. RAKE, BLOOM
12. REACH, BLOW, HAND
King, page 61- 27 complete sentences
1. HOLD, LOOK
3. cut, SAY
4. LOOK, CUT
6. TRY, scramble, go, thump
7. PIVOT, BE
10. GET, TURN
12. BRING, WANT, MAKE
13. REMEMBER, choke up
16. BE, be, SOUND, slacken
17. HAPPEN, BEGIN
20. do, SAY, REACH, take
21. SAY, SWING
23. BURST, snap
24. RUN, PATTER
25. stop, SAY
17. SAY, BRING
25% (ten) of Larsson's verbs are "be." Just over 25% (eleven) are nonphysical or mental actions like "recall, "understand," "summarize," "discover" and "find."
2-1/2% (one) of McCarthy's verbs are "be" and 2-1/2% convey a state of mind ("fear.")
10% (five) of King's verbs are "be" and most of the rest are actions.
The process I used to choose these pages probably wasn't fair. I started with a Larsson page I had already noted as bad then flipped through McCarthy and King for pages that looked about as dense with narrative as the Larsson page (that is, pages that didn't have much dialogue). Still, I bet that a fair and complete accounting of the verbs in all three books would show similar -- if not quite as marked -- tendencies. That is, McCarthy and King rely more on action verbs while Larsson's work relies more on verbs that convey being, seeming, or thinking.
That's partly why I prefer reading McCarthy and King.
Larsson structures a lot of his sentences like this:
"The reason for her visit to the crime scene was to get two pieces of information" and "Second was an inconsistency that kept gnawing at her." (p. 414)
Notice how, in both, he hangs the main clause on "was" and crams the more interesting stuff into less-prominent parts of the sentence. Imagine he had written them:
"She visited the crime scene to find two pieces of information."
"An inconsistency kept gnawing at her."
See how the noun "visit" can be made into an action? See how "gnaw" can be made the main action in the sentence instead of just part of a relative clause in a sentence whose main verb is the ho-hum "was"?
I think there's a lesson in here ...
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