This week we are continuing the discussion of verbs and how they shape the narrative. Last week I mentioned that I use verbs when creating a character, seeking out the action words each character embodies. Those words illuminate the gut reactions of each character and how they will act and react in each situation.
Now that I have identified who most of my characters are, I am designing the structure of the plot. I need to use actions and events to show the story, but I also must bring out the backstory for my two MCs. I have to shed light on the friction and the attraction and force them together in situations they don’t want to be in. I also have to show them as individuals, independent of each other. As I work on the plot, the verbs that each character embodies will come to me.
Sentences are a marriage of words. A noun is one partner, and the verb is the other. The union of noun and verb will produce offspring—sentences. Modifiers are the in-laws, necessary but meddlesome. They often try to take over and guide the children against the parents’ wishes.
So, to minimize the damage done by intrusive modifiers, we rely on strong verbs and allow the modifiers to have their say only when necessary.
So why are verbs so crucial in shaping the tone and atmosphere of a narrative?
Think about this sentence: Nelson walked away.
We have three words indicating someone has departed, but they don’t show his mood.
Nelson is a person (noun). He performs an action (verb).
That action affects both Nelson and his objective: leaving. Away is an adverb (modifier) denoting distance from a particular person, place, or thing. It modifies the verb, giving Nelson a direction in which to go.
We can write it several different ways still using only three words, and all of them would indicate that Nelson has left the scene. Each time we substitute a synonym for the word walked, we change the atmosphere of that scene.
Nelson sauntered away. (He departed in a carefree, leisurely manner.)
Nelson strode away. (He walked decisively in a particular direction.)
Nelson stomped away. (Nelson left the scene in a bad mood.)
Nelson ambled away. (He walked slowly.)
Nelson slogged away. (He departed but had to work at it.)
Nelson slipped away. (Nelson departed, but sneakily.)
This is why it’s so important to have a good thesaurus on hand—I want my words to say what I envision. If I choose the correct verbs, my sentences will express my ideas with fewer modifiers.
Many verbs cannot impact a character or object directly. These are called intransitive verbs. They are just as important as transitive verbs because they show a mood or condition, a state of being, or a reflex (instinctive response).
Consider the word “mope.” Mope is an intransitive verb that means dejected and apathetic. It’s an action word that is going nowhere.
Nelson moped. (He was dejected and apathetic.)
We can have our character in a bad mood, but with many nuances that might say what we mean in a more particular way.
Nelson pouted. (He was whiney.)
Nelson languished. (He did nothing and stagnated.)
Nelson sulked. (He was angry and self-pitying.)
Nelson fretted. (He was in a neurotic mood.)
Some intransitive verbs in the family of “mope” are more robust and carry greater force:
Nelson brooded. (He was in a dark mood, obsessing.)
Nelson agonized. (He couldn’t stop thinking about it, suffering.)
When we add a strong intransitive verb to a powerful transitive verb, we have action and mood:
Nelson strode away, brooding. (He left the scene, and someone will suffer.)
The above examples are basic, a bald telling of actions and moods. They are the core of the paragraph, the central idea. When we strip away the surrounding words, we can see how the variations of a primary verb can change the reader’s perception of an action scene.
Every year, I write the first draft of a novel in November, starting the actual writing on November 1st.
I always begin with an idea for a plot. Usually, I can’t actually visualize how it works until I see who the protagonists are. So, I jot down the premise and start from there. I choose to create a plot with my cast of characters having their primary characteristics in place.
I hope the conflicts and roadblocks will appear to arise organically as if that is what would happen to those people. Up to the end, my MCs must feel uncertain about the outcome. They must fear that failure looms but can’t give up. They must have a well of determination to draw upon.
I must do a certain amount of prep work if I hope to have a coherent plot and believable situations on November 1st. I do this gradually, working on it whenever I’m at a standstill on the current work in progress.
Everyone has hiccups in life, things that take over temporarily and make creative thinking a bit tough. But my work moves ahead because I can always do the technical stuff like plotting and worldbuilding, even when I can’t figure out how to say what I mean.
Previous posts on this subject:
Books I own and recommend for further research:
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1) (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 8) by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Activate: a thesaurus of actions & tactics for dynamic genre fiction by Damon Suede.