where the writers are
More Parsing Larsson: Verb Inventory

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:
1. BE
2. BE
3. RECALL, HAVE, be
4. BE
5. UNDERSTAND
6. BE, FIND, find
7. BE, gnaw
8. NOTICE, take, keep
9. BE, BE, summarize
10. HAVE, BE, clear out, throw
11. THROW
12. BE, FIND
13. SEE, remove, deal with
14. SPEND, MISS, COME, HAVE
15. FIND, contain
16. GO, try, find
17. BE
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
10. NOD
11. RAKE, BLOOM
12. REACH, BLOW, HAND
13. SAY
14. TAKE
15. DO

King, page 61- 27 complete sentences
1. HOLD, LOOK
2. LOOK
3. cut, SAY
4. LOOK, CUT
5. CUT
6. TRY, scramble, go, thump
7. PIVOT, BE
8. SEIZE
9. DANGLE
10. GET, TURN
11. WAIT
12. BRING, WANT, MAKE
13. REMEMBER, choke up
14. BE
15. BE
16. BE, be, SOUND, slacken
17. HAPPEN, BEGIN
18. STARE
19. STARE
20. do, SAY, REACH, take
21. SAY, SWING
22. HAMMER
23. BURST, snap
24. RUN, PATTER
25. stop, SAY
26. LOOK
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."
and
"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 ...

 

Comments
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I'm going to write my next

I'm going to write my next novel with no verbs at all, thereby cleverly bypassing all your aforementioned hidden hazards. Naturally, the best way to avoid verbiage is to avoid verbs. This masterpiece will undoubtedly achieve timelessness because there will be absolutely no tense. You can't have tense with no verbs...and who wants to be tense, anyway? People have enough tension in their lives...who wants to have more by reading a book?

Here's my beginning.

Dark and stormy night.

But, alas, we see that we still have not one but TWO adjectives in the very first sentence! Great Big Meanies also seem to have issues with adjectives. So, I shall address that also, with my next revision. Here goes:

Night.

Ah...much better. Destined to be a classic! Stay tuned!

Eric

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WARNING SEMI-PLOT SPOILER

WARNING SEMI-PLOT SPOILER AHEAD. That was interesting. I think you are onto something. When I read "Dragon Tattoo," I came away unable to understand what the fuss was about. (While I was reading it, I kept complaining, "Jesus, I've been reading for days, and nobody's gotten killed yet." Then when i got to the killing most of them had happened years ago, off stage. Where's the fun in that?) Anyway, I understand the second one is better and the third is better still, so I will probably keep on. But maybe what you're tripping on a mini-cosim of my macro, y'think?

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Actually ...

The first one was much, much better than the second. And that's coming from someone who shares your feelings about the first one.

There's no doubt in my mind that you'll agree. Still, I'll hope to hear your specific thoughts on it once you've begun reading.

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Hi June:     I agree;

Hi June:

    I agree; Dark and Stormy Night is a better beginning than just Night.  I shall proceed as per your suggestion.  If you will forgive my adjectives.

 Thanks!

 Eric

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I just want to tell you, Eric,

that one person got it.

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Verbs, adjs, and all that comes in between

I love this kind of debate, the "what is good art?"-type debate. Thanks!

Since I'm a believer that anyone can write (yes, it's the teacher in me), the quintessential factor for me is VOICE. Voice is what makes any piece of writing speak (ha ha). So, if -- in the writing -- a narrator or character uses a lot of "to be" verbology, then this should "speak volumes" about that particular narrator / author. I try not to separate writing too much from human communication (unless my narrator / character deems it so), and I always try to separate the writer from the writing.

As for adjs...well, yes, it's true one can go overboard with their use; I have no remedy for this. I guess in my own writing I try to avoid getting my narrators / characters into any situations where they may need to elaborate on their surroundings. I'm big into dialogue myself.

Personally, I like

Night.

It leaves a lot up to my imagination. I read on anxiously to learn more and sift out my vision from that of the writer, through his or her writing.

You go!

Cheers and vive l'ecrivant!

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I dig stuff like this...

...especially if I agree with the point being made.

It brings to mind the odd & distinct verb selections of Richard Ford, from
A Piece of My Heart, for example:

"He let the truck idle, watching the door as if he were waiting for the woman and the girl to come boiling out like bloodhounds."

The wildcat "gurgled at a sinew and pawed it with his front feet, stretching it backward until it snapped."

"The rooster perched on a low branch and studied the raccoons curiously, as if he couldn't understand anything about them."

"The little girl looked up when she heard the screen slap...."

"She bridged her neck..." (meaning she bent her head back and caused her neck to arch up bridge-like.)

"A.M. or P.M.?" she yelled, but the words got slammed in the door.

"She retired to her elbows."

"He graveled his chin in the pillow and tried to figure that out."

"'I'm tired of talking,'" she said, watching her hand tour around in his trousers as if it were after something that wouldn't keep still."

"Up the Sierras the rain was pulling apart, opening gaps to daylight."

"...He could hear the ducks squabbling and conniving a hundred yards farther in the deep water."

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Cool discussion! I've never

Cool discussion! I've never read Larsson, but that first set of verbs strikes me as a tad lulling for a book that's supposed to involve suspense. I like the use of nouns as verbs, myself. My husband, for instance,nerded his way through high school.

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It stormed.

What a great analysis. I search for both "got" and "was" in my final edit. For me, "got" became a crutch and the word drug down the tempo of my writing.

"Got" had to go before I called the book complete.

"Was" is harder to get rid of. But if I can change 50%, I'm happy.