A-Z Writer's Toolbox: Verve & Wile

A to Z Disclaimer:

Like all craftspeople, writers need to keep a bag of tricks handy. A set of tools for the job (writing), if you will. Some of these traits or tools are obvious--like the need to have a hide as thick as a brick, for instance. Some are not. This month, I've been challenged to do a post every day of the week (excluding Sunday) that begins with a letter of the alphabet. I'm going to use this challenge to examine some of those necessary writing tools, both conventional and not. Hold on to your #2 pencil, here we go!

NOTE: I've added a page dedicated to my A to Z Writer's Toolbox posts. I figured I'd soon have a bunch of these things and it'll make it easier for you to browse any of the letters you might have missed. You can find a link to the page under the, "MORE STUFF" heading at the top of the right-hand column of this page.

V is for verve

Do your characters share the very air you breathe?  When they whisper, does it tickle your ear?  Are readers thrust into the air with every upswing in your story, or crushed beneath the weight of the mighty circumstances you've set forth?

What I'm really asking is does your writing have verve--a life or spirit that makes it more than words on paper or screen?

We've all read a story that so completely comes alive in our minds that we can scarcely distinguish between reality and fiction when we are trapped inside its pages.  In our minds the hero becomes our friend, the villain our worst enemy and the quest our own soul-churning journey.  We cry with the losses and cheer the victories as if we were watching it all unfold live in some gigantic sports arena.

Anyone who has ever attempted to write a fictitious paragraph, much less a novel, can tell you that the 'verve factor' is nothing short of magic.  Some writers seem to be born with the ability to infuse their prose with a sort of crackling energy that leaps from the pages and grabs hold of anyone who strays to close.  Their words are like the literary equivalent of potato chips or chocolate; you'll devour them even when you're too full to sensibly want more.  It seems the rest of us can only marvel at the show and hope that some of the magic rubs off on our own writing.

However, after considering some of my favorite crack reads (the ones I can't give up or put down), I think that maybe we can (to an extent) manufacture verve.  I believe that there are some common traits shared among the most lively story tellers that we can put in our toolboxes.  Here are four ways to bring spirit to your story:

1) Real Characters: Great characters suck me into a story quicker than anything, but it isn't the "greatness" of a character that really makes the story come alive.  More often than not it's the normal aspects of a character, or the parts I can directly identify with, that keep me turning the pages.  Moreover, it's when those characters act in ways that I could see myself acting that things really get interesting.  Whether it's a hero who gets frustrated with his best friend and says something awful, or a villain who loves his mother yet plans to destroy the world with a zombie virus--keep it real.  (Not that I plan on destroying the world with a zombie virus, but I do love my mom!)

2) A+ Dialogue: Nothing puts my mind into a scene like a great conversation between characters.  Humans are highly social creatures, and unique for our ability to communicate with words.  Lively stories have vivacious characters, and those characters have meaningful and engaging conversations.

3) Exceptional Settings:  We're all familiar with the concept of making a setting so detailed and full of life that it becomes a character in our stories.  While I'm not certain that the setting needs to be a star, I've found that the most gripping stories have fantastic settings and description.  For a story to truly come to life, the setting needs to have an impact on the characters and the reader.  If the damp night air of an enchanted forest sends a shiver down the spine of our hero, it'll most likely do the same to our readers.

4) Conflict: When things get messy our minds tend to shift into overdrive.  If there's a problem, we immediately jump to possible solutions.  It's human nature, and it's something we can use in our writing.  Every scene should have a conflict.  Every. Scene.  That doesn't mean we have to have a gun fight on every page, but it does mean we should be actively engaging our readers by having our characters face frequent mental and/or physical obstacles.

W is for wile

Are you a trickster in your writing?  Like the Coyote in the cartoon above, do you set traps for the reader, hoping that this is the time you snare them?  Here's why you should ...

I read for the unexpected, not the expected.  I WANT to be baited and switched.  In fact, I get a little upset when an author gets predictable.  How entertaining would it be if your friend told you a story about their trip to the grocery store and all that happened was a trip to the grocery store?  Not very.  Throw in a purse snatching and a car chase, however, and now you've got a story!

My point is that readers are smart, and they're always on to our schemes.  We have to be tireless in our efforts to pull the rug out from under them.  To do that we have to utilize all of our wile and wit.  Every character should have layers of complexity, and every plot a potential twist.



  1. Have you ever read Tom Wolfe? If you want Wile and Verve, check him out. I actually hate the way he keeps introducing new characters all the time, but the descriptions are phenomenal. I'm just saying, if someone wants fantastic, crude and utterly amazing, colorful character descriptions they should read at least one of his books.

  2. I'm all about fantastic, crude and amazing! :-) I'll have to give him a look. Thanks for the suggestion!


  3. You know, the other day I was complaining to my husband about a few things that were bothering me about Patrick Rothfuss' new book The Wise Man's Fear. I thought they were sloppy writing. But then my husband suggested that maybe those things were intentional and the author was actually playing some pretty wily tricks. Wow. That blew my mind and now I'm totally re-hooked on the book. I'm still not sure that's the case. (My husband tends to see crazy tricks everywhere while he's reading books by Gene Wolfe.) But I hope so. It's a rare author that can surprise readers anymore.

    I'm hoping to surprise my future readers with some of the major events I have planned for my WIP. Whether or not I have the skill is still to be seen!

  4. Oh, I love both those things! And a great book will weave both verve and wile into the pages and keeps me turning, keeps me reading. I love those kind of reads.

    Do I write that way? I don't know.

    My current WIP--not so much. I'm not as emotionally attached--a bad thing, I know.

    But when I wrote my contemporary YA novel "Desert Rice" my little character would sit on my shoulder, whisper to me, and drag me down down paths I didn't want to go. I would write scenes and be depressed for days. It was emotionally draining. I worried about this little girl.

    I need to get back to that way of writing.

    Great post.

  5. Loving this post, and I'm rather similar. Especially on the setting. I used to think I didn't like description at all. That was because I hadn't seen done right.

  6. I have to save this post for my next round of revisions. I have to!!!
    Thanks for writing this.

  7. My characters drive me crazy sometimes. I talk to them. More often than not, I'll say, "I can't believe you just did that!"

  8. Great words for V and W. It takes me a couple drafts before my stories really start to take shape and have the kind of life and spirit you talk about. But the cool thing is that once it starts having that life/spirit it is more fun to work on.


“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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