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Verbs in David Mitchell

September 3, 2010

I’ve heard and read many times that writers should use strong verbs. But this dictum always felt abstract to me, overly general,  and, therefore, not particularly alive. Perhaps I wasn’t tuned in to verbs; I can’t remember putting a book down because the author overused the verb to be, but it’s possible that I did without knowing it.

Reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, changed all that. I was persuaded that I should think more, do more, want more, from my verbs.

I didn’t set out to notice his verbs; I couldn’t help but notice them, the way they require readers to see, hear, smell, feel an image in a new way, the way they work, one word bundled with energy carrying the sentence.

Here are some of my favorites:

“He eclipses the sun with her persimmon: the planet grows orange like a jack-o’-lantern” (129).

Weather

“Sunshine rusts the upstairs apartment in Tall House” (169).

“Thunder splits the rift where the sun floods in” (318).

“Dark clouds clot and the dusk is silted with insects and bats” (416).

The air

“A night-soil man’s buckets, swinging on his pole, stain the air” (170).

“She imagines Master Suzaku, helpless, as Yayoi’s screams scald the air” (271).

Birds

“Crows smear rumors across the matted, sticky sky” (454).

“Needle tips of birdsong stitch and thread the thicket’s many layers” (305)

Static objects

“Shadows sway and coagulate among the low rafters” (225).

“Higher up the mountainside, limestone cliffs wall in the gorge” (306).

“Past the tori gates, the ground flattens. The shrine of Mount Shiranui rears up” (312)

“During the first interval, the lanterns are lit, braziers are stoked against the cold, and conversations stew and bubble” (205).

Metaphor and verb together

“Rain hisses like swinging snakes and gutters gurgle” (244).

“Wasps of pain crawl in and out through the stump of his brain” (313).

“Millstones in his conscience grind, grind and grind…” (346)

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