Lifting action with verbs!

My last fiction blog focused on synonyms – words with similar meanings that lift writing and avoid the tedium of repetition. Examples such as: looked, walked, saw, said – illustrate how often many of us, including myself, over-use the same words, and that these are often verbs. So my thoughts today are on verbs. How can our use of verbs contribute to the task of creating three dimensional characters and storylines?

Verbs are ‘doing’ words. They describe action. I am reminding myself of these two points. Yet, verbs such as my four examples above, do little to illustrate action. They are boring. Where is the imagery? If the verbs are boring, then the characters doing the action are also boring and flat. There is very little dimension.

‘Was’ is a further example of my lazy writing. The verbs formed from the infinitive ‘to be’ are an odd set. We end up with: am, is, are, were, was. Bland, and also boring. Yet, these verbs are often built into more interesting verb phrases – using participles from other verbs: he was so patronising… we were zooming….and so on. So we cannot throw out these babies with the bath water from the others. The verb ‘to be’ is an exception.

Sat is another example of mine. He sat…..okay. But HOW? Did he lounge in a relaxed manner? Was he straight-backed, alerted by a sudden noise? Was he sitting with his legs crossed? Was he draped over a chair with his arms behind his head? I didn’t come up with many alternatives for the actual word sitting, but adding other words adds to the interest as we can see the seated action (have I accidentally come up with an oxymoron?).

Tenses are another example of my need to improve. I don’t mean – past, present or future – but the difference between simple and continuous actions. There is a recognisable difference between the two sentences: She sat in a chair. She was sitting in a chair. In the first example, I imagine her movement towards the chair – from a standing or walking position. In the second, I can’t see any movement, because the continuous tense implies that she has been sitting for a while – without movement.

Why am I going on about verbs? It’s because if we are to give writing the dimension we seek – then the actions of our characters are surely important. I read a lot, and when I read I imagine the actions of characters. The verbs help readers to create pictures in our heads as we read. Characters might be: throwing, tumbling, falling, leaping, stumbling, hiding, reflecting, jiving or pirouetting. We can see it happening as we read.

A further thought: one of the examples above is different. Yes – reflecting. It occurs to me that some verbs have less action because they express a thought or a belief, as opposed to actual movement: thinking, pondering, believe, contemplating. Yet, even these verbs can be written in a boring – or an interesting way.

I hope I have given you lots to consider, but verbs are often paired with adverbs. And adverbs have a bad reputation. Or do they? That’s next week’s thought on fiction writing.

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