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May 18

Lights, Camera, Action: Verb!

I had one of those ah-ha!, slap-your-head-with-the-palm-of-your-hand-*duh* moments recently.

This time, that moment was about writing.

An article I read discussed ways to improve your writing. In your first draft, the most important thing is to get the words down in whatever perfect or jumbled form you can. The revision stage is where you get creative from those bare bones you have constructed. What is the one element that will instantly make your writing more compelling, creative, and interesting? That’s right: verbs.

Verbs allow us to hear and see. They are our senses. Verbs are integral to any writing, and using them is as simple as Schoolhouse Rock professes. They are action, or lack thereof, and how we manipulate them is important. One word can change the whole outlook and approach to a story. Verbs tell the story. In retrospect, it is an obvious solution, but I didn’t believe it could be that easy until I played around with verbs…and ah-ha!

Consider the sentence: He took the box to the car. The sentence gets you there but not in style.

The verb, the action, in this sentence is “took,” which is the past tense of the word “take.” Often action is seen as immediate, but the past tense is the most common tense used in writing whether that is a novel, magazine, or a news story. Past tense does not negate a reader’s experience in the present. Now change one word: the verb. This is what you get:

He dragged the box to the car.

He pushed the box to the car.

He rolled the box to the car.

He pulled the box

He hefted the box

He carried the box

He lugged the box

He hauled

He hoisted

He moved

Each verb changes the meaning of the sentence and enhances the story. “Drag” and “push” suggests that the box is heavy (is there a dead body in it?) or that the character is weak (is he sick or injured?). Suddenly, the reader has the potential to know more about the story and situation. “Hoist” and “heft” imply circumstances more than “carry” does, but each of those words suggests that the box size is important (is the box lifted by hands or a crane?) or that the character’s physical strength (is he struggling or showing off his muscles?) is integral to the story. The reader becomes more intrigued about the contents of the box and the overall situation. “Move” suggests that the box was in one location (is it hidden in a bedroom?) and has to be in a new place (why and to where?). Now the reader is enticed into the plot and the character’s circumstances.

Now the writer has the opportunity to delve deeper into the overall experience to entertain readers. Consider the sentences above that evolved from changing the word “took” to a more specific and situational verb:

He dragged the box across the gravel towards the station wagon, but it was a long driveway.

 

He carried the blue box in his suit pocket because it had to be a surprise, and she was already waiting in the car.

 

He swayed and stumbled with the box on his shoulders, hoping it would fit in the trunk of his beat-up Ford Mustang.

 

The box had to be moved–now!–so he whipped it up in his arms and dashed outside to the only place he could think of: Jesse’s car.

 

He placed the brown moving box lightly on the dolly, but he did not see the Fragile This Side Up sticker until he rolled the dolly to the car.

 

Flip, flop, end over end, Smithy spent ten minutes pushing the empty refrigerator box to the far end of the dump where the rusty motorcycle and broken dresser were already stacked.

 

All that magic occurred from one changed word. What magic can you create? Ah-ha!

7 comments

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  1. Shelby Newhouse

    Phil, you may remember my reading of the beginning of my autobiography, “A Stroke of Luck”. Evidence of the value of suggestions by members of your group and your blogs reference re: verbs is reflected in my new opening. The previous opening took my reader back to the assassination in 1881 and the history of the movement of millions of Jews to America. Here is my new opening.

    “You should be dead!” Those were his exact words. Not about my character. We’d never met. Who was this guy? A rabbi, a minister? Wait. He’s a neurological surgeon sitting on the edge of my bed. Must be a medical term.
    We’ve all heard the tale. A surgeon’s bedside manner often leaves something to be desired. He must have read my MRI. A blood clot had shut down both basilar arteries. Textbooks say I’d given up the ghost. I was dead.”

    Thanks to your groups suggestions and your blog.

    Regards, Shelby Newhouse

    1. dwhirsch

      Thank you. Glad to be an inspiration. Verbs should pull a reader in, to tell them the writer’s/character’s intention without “telling” them. It seems you have developed a much more engaging opening. If you don’t mind sharing, what was the one verb/word that made it “click” for you?

  2. Sue Remisiewicz

    Good advice! This is where a good thesaurus is your best friend.

    1. dwhirsch

      Absolutely! Online versions are convenient, but I’ll never give up my worn, purple-covered handheld thesaurus I’ve used since college. All it takes is that one word….

  3. Yibbity

    Many years ago, when handwriting was still taught in school, the English teachers taught about the use of verbs and dissecting a sentence to learn how it was put together.
    I have been enjoying reading all the posts here.

    1. dwhirsch

      Thank you! Oh gosh, I remember doing this. I also remember not liking it because it made the act of writing seems scientific, too technical. Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer not scientist.

  4. Phil Rosette

    Well put, Diana… Thanks for showing how action verbs “tell” the story.

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