Saturday, November 22, 2014

Verbs: One Part of Speech to Rule Them All

It's been a while since I did a writing advice post, so I decided to go back to the basics with some good, old-fashioned style tips.  And when I say "back," I mean really far back.  We're going back to elementary school.

Remember when you first learned about the parts of speech?  Ever since you knew what an adjective was, you were probably taught that they make your writing interesting.  Dog is nice, but oversized, fluffy dog is better.  This is true, to a certain extent.  However, adjectives are not the most important words in your novel.  Or any of your writing, for that matter.

Verbs are where the party is.

Verbs are the most powerful tools you have with which to tell your story.  They move it forward in a way that no other words can.  Adjectives are good, nouns are better, but verbs.

Think about it: verbs inherently imply action.  If you're using verbs, something is happening, on some level.  Something is doing something.  After all, isn't that what a novel is?  You can sit there and describe a scene all you want using nouns and adjectives, but it's not going anywhere.  Once you add verbs, things are moving, and that's your goal.

How can you do this, though?  How do you harness the magical power of verbs?

Many times, it's as easy as simply modifying small word choices.  You could say "Bucky Barnes ran quickly across the road," using quickly to modify the boring verb run.  You've described the running, yes.  There are better ways to say it, though, being even more specific than ran quickly.  You could use dashed, or sprinted, or galloped, or a million other possibilities.  This is a very basic example, but even here, it's easy to see how "Bucky Barnes sprinted across the road" is already so much better.  It's more specific--it conjures up a clearer picture in the reader's mind.  Running quickly could mean a range of things, but sprinting implies clear, all-out direction.

In many cases, it leads right back to the old passive vs. active voice rule.  As a general rule, go for the active voice.  Even though "The cake was eaten by dinosaurs" contains a verb--was--it gets so much more direct if switched to "Dinosaurs ate the cake".  It gets even better, then, if you use any one of the more powerful verbs at your disposal.  Dinosaurs devoured the cake.

It's not always as easy as this, though.  It won't always be enough to simply switch out one verb for another.  In this case, it's a matter of choosing what to describe in any certain situation.  You could describe your character's appearance--hairstyle, eye color, height.  That's important, but what's more important is the action of it, even if they're standing still.  Describe their right hand fidgeting with the hem of their shirt.  Describe the play of the wind in their hair.  Describe the movement of their shadow as other people move around them, blocking light.  You don't need any traditional "action" to make it active.  Either way, movement is important.

Adjectives, nouns, and any other words certainly have their place--I'm not saying you should avoid them.  You need a little of everything in the right places to make a story flow.  Verbs, though, are actually a powerful descriptive tool.  They can affect pacing; lack of verbs can influence this, as well.  There are exceptions to every rule, and like everything else in writing, this is no different.  Still, it's a solid bet that being conscious of verbs will help you achieve the feeling of forward motion in your writing.
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