September 19, 2011

The Verb Lottery

Stronger verbs—it’s like more money. Who doesn't want that? We know as writers that sprint, dash, race, and flee are stronger than run. We know that pummel, strike, punch, and slap are stronger than hit. We know that yearn, desire, crave, and wish are stronger than want. And that type of polishing and strengthening our manuscript is for sure a win-win.

But—and you knew there was a but coming—what happens when you go a layer deeper and begin to break down your verbs into their functions and really pull apart your sentences? It’s winning the verb lottery. 

Now many writers more brilliant than me already know this, but somewhere between passing English year to year in school and now, I forgot that not all verbs are the same. Action verbs are most common in fiction writing, and we know them by their vividness: maul, flaunt, dominate, perceive, smuggle, unify and vanquish, to name a few. These are often the ones we hone in on to strengthen, like in the first paragraph of this post.

But action verbs have frienemies. If you don’t write YA or know that word, open a new tab and google or just keep reading, because its the best way I know to describe “to be” verbs. They are the friend/enemy of the writer: am, are, is, was, were, be, become, and became. These to be verbs, which I will probably forever call frenimies verbs, are known by another AKA—telling. Simply rewind a few sentences and see if those to be verbs line up with any “Can you show me instead of tell me?” comments in your last few critiques. Or if like me, for a long time you knew the word ‘was’ was bad, up there with ‘had’, but weren’t exactly sure why. This is why. Watch this.

Weak: It was just before night set in that Price found the missing gun. (13 words)

Stronger: Price found the missing gun just before night set in. (10 words)

Now we can REALLY have some fun strengthening these verbs, and a few of the nouns too.

Strongest: Price located the missing rifle just before nightfall. (8 words)

But there’s something else happening in the extreme makeover verb edition above, besides the benefit to word count. The subject of the sentence changed. In the first example, ‘It’ is the subject, and ‘was’ is the verb (a frenimy to be verb). And those don’t tell the reader anything, because all the real information is stuck way, way down there in the rest of the sentence. But when we eliminate our to be verb ‘was’ in the first revision, we have to adjust the subject for the sentence to still work. I’d made so many changes like this to “eliminate was” in my revisions without realizing I was simultaneously changing the subject of the sentence. Now that I really understand the parts of speech and making certain the true subject of the sentence is also the grammatical subject of the sentence, the difference between action and to be verbs, it really does feel like winning the verb lottery.

Because I can turn walk into saunter, stroll, parade, or amble all day long, depending on the one that most effectively conveys the meaning I’m writing to show, but if I’ve missed my true subject, and buried my true verbs deep in the predicate as nouns, I’m not writing as strong as I can. 

When I’m not writing as strong as I can, I’m doing a disservice to my story, and to my reader.

So if you’ve stayed with me so far, I hope this little bit of advice makes you feel like you’ve won the verb lottery too. You might have really great verbs masquerading as heavy, multi-syllable nouns in your sentences. These can be converted back into their original verb forms.

Weak: They made the announcement that they were getting married.
Stronger: They announced that they were getting married.

Weak: I came to the conclusion my husband would always be my best friend.
Stronger: I concluded my husband would always be my best friend.

So how do you find these wonderful verbs masquerading as nouns that may be better unmasked? 
Look for the five most common Latin endings on them: tion, ment, ing, ion, and ance.
(Credit to Linda Flower’s Problem Solving Strategies for Writing for that little Latin gem.)

Here’s three links that will really make it feel like payday for you, but please come back and comment if you found this post and/or the links helpful. I’d like to think all this was as exciting for at least one or two of my blog followers as it was for me. Wait, I mean… I’d like to think all this excited at least one or two of my blog followers as much as it did me. See how that works?

1 comment:

Keisha Gilchrist-Broomes said...

Loved this post. Extremely helpful for newbie fiction writers like myself. I plan to share this link with my novel writing Yahoo group.