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Verbs Are The New Adjectives



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Sun Nov 06, 2016 2:32 pm
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Megrim says...



In my reviews, if I'm going to make a wording-level comment, 90% of the time it's about verb choice. Verbs are the secret ingredient, so easily overlooked, that can make a story come to life and jump off the page.

We learn in school that adjectives are the descriptive words, so we get all focused on those--but the dirty truth is that adjectives are dead weight. Why use an adjective (or an adverb), when a stronger verb will do the same thing?! But don't just take my word for it, let's see some examples.

How verb choice changes meaning:

He sat on the chair.


The basic verb here is "sat." That's the simple version of the action he's taking. We might then want to add description to how he looks or feels, to convey more about what's going on. I could say something like, "He felt haggard," or "He could barely keep his eyes open," or "He bounced on the edge of his seat with excitement." Or, I could save a whole sentence and imply the same stuff by changing the verb.

He sagged into the chair.

He flopped onto the chair.

He slipped into a chair.

He crumpled into a chair.

Each one of these conveys a different mindframe or physical state. There are subtle differences to the action that give clues to the emotion at play.

How verb choice can describe setting:

Okay, that's all well and good, but we still need adjectives to do the bulk of description, don't we? I suppose you still need adjectives, but they only do 50% of the work.

I'm going to share some snippets of one of my most descriptive chapters, in which two characters meet in the ice gardens. FIRST, I'm going to edit out all my vivid verbs and put more weight on the adjectives. Then I'll show you the real version, and you can decide which is stronger.

The chilly air hit him all at once.

The path was lined with tall ice sculptures.

There were small white lights in the conifers overhead, which created delicate shadows across the walkway as the breeze went through them.

Quiet generators caused mist to form on top of the walls, and drop down to create pools over the colored lights.


Those might seem okay, I suppose. But they're not very elegant. I've intentionally used a different trick in each example, each of which will be talked about in later sections. There are specific verbs and constructions that weaken these (see if you can spot them). Now let me show you the actual sentences.

The chill enveloped him in one swift gust.

Ice sculptures towered all around him.

Small white lights filled the branches of overlying conifers, casting delicate shadows across the walkway as they shifted in the breeze.

Mist rolled out of quiet generators cascaded down the walls, swirling over colored lights and pooling across the ground.


"To be" verbs:

By far the biggest culprit is "to be" verbs: was, were, will, would have, to be, etc.

One of the best things you can do to improve your writing is do a ctrl-F search-and-destroy for these verbs. Often they're a sign of passive voice (when the subject comes AFTER the verb), but that's not their only issue. They're bland, and they do exactly what I was complaining about above: leave all the work to the adjectives, doing nothing themselves.

Often the reason I hate "to be" verbs is that they make descriptions feel flat. Whatever you're describing just is. As subtle as it may seem, it's more interesting if the objects are "doing" something.

Here's another edited example:

There were two reinforced windows along one wall, and through them was a view of the small, cold stars.


The actual sentence:

Two reinforced windows dominated one wall, and through them the small, cold stars glittered in the vastness.


In the "weak" version, the window and the stars just... are. We're describing them as simply existing. In the second version, they're sort of doing something--dominating, glittering. Technically the picture that's being described is exactly the same. But the second version feels more lively, more active. And it's 100% because I used "descriptive" verbs instead of was/were.

"Filter" verbs:

Filter verbs are worth mentioning, since I didn't know what they were for the longest time. They definitely have their place and their use, but I want you to be aware of them and try to avoid them unless you know what you're doing.

Filter verbs include...
- saw
- felt
- heard
- touched
- thought

The idea here is that the character is acting as a filter through which we get the description of the scene--as opposed to the reader simply experiencing the scene first hand. Eg...

He could hear the sound of metal tearing on the other side of the docking bay.

vs...
The screech of tearing metal echoed across the docking bay.


Or another example...

He felt the catwalk give way beneath him.

vs...
The catwalk lurched beneath his feet.


The ones without the filter verbs are more direct, putting the reader more in the character's shoes, as opposed to getting a secondhand account of what's going on.

Other weak verbs to avoid:

Some other verbs to watch out for, because they're very "blah":
- caused
- made
- looked
- turned
- walked
- went
- started to
- began to

Don't use an adverb unless a stronger verb doesn't exist:

Adverbs are widely hated in creative writing, for good reason. Usually they're an extra word that you don't need--an indicator that you just haven't found the right verb yet. Sometimes that verb doesn't exist, and then it's okay to use the adverb.

Adverb not okay: He walked quickly through the alley. (Try he "hurried")

Adverb okay: He screamed, but held on, blindly leaning his weight forward. (You think of a verb that means "to blindly lean," you let me know)

THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO "SAID"

"Said" is a verb, yes, but the rules for dialogue are completely different. DO NOT replace said or asked with a more vivid verb unless you really know what you are doing. In dialogue, you want the focus on the dialogue. "Said" and "asked" are invisible, and the reader ignores them. If you make them into fancy verbs instead, you divert attention onto the dialogue tag, rather than the dialogue itself, where it belongs. "Said" is preferable in 90% of cases.

Conclusion

Verb choice is a simple yet highly effective tool for improving your prose. It makes descriptions come to life, strengthens the atmosphere of a scene, and allows you to cut down on unnecessary words. They do a lot more work than it might seem! So forget about adjectives, when it's time to describe something, look at your verbs!
  





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Fri Jan 06, 2017 2:33 am
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Carlito says...



I must say I adore this article and it's a huge help to me right now as I comb through my novel. I was surprised to notice how many weak verbs I was using, and I've already cut ~2000 words eliminating them! :D
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

I want to read your work!

Ask me anything. Talk to me about anything. Seriously. My PM box is always open <3
  





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Sun Jan 28, 2018 1:29 am
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inktopus says...



Just wanted to say that this is my favorite article in the KB. I link it in reviews all the time!
insert profound quote here

Formerly Stormcloud
  





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Sun Feb 04, 2018 9:22 pm
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Megrim says...



Thank you @inktopus! I'm very flattered.
  





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Sun Apr 29, 2018 7:27 am
Radrook says...



How come I only see the comments but not the article?
“Defamation; is an act of impiety.”
― Kristian Goldmund Aumann, The Seven Deadly Sins
  





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Wed May 02, 2018 3:51 am
Lightsong says...



@Radrook: What do you mean?
"Writing, though, belongs first to the writer, and then to the reader, to the world.

The subject is a catalyst, a character, but our responsibility is, has to be, to the work."

- David L. Ulin
  





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Wed May 02, 2018 5:44 am
Radrook says...



Lightsong wrote:@Radrook: What do you mean?


Where is the article that everyone is talking about?
“Defamation; is an act of impiety.”
― Kristian Goldmund Aumann, The Seven Deadly Sins
  





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Wed May 02, 2018 7:25 am
Lightsong says...



@Radrook: It's supposed to be in the first post, but if you can't see it, I'll submit this issue to other mods. Don't worry.
"Writing, though, belongs first to the writer, and then to the reader, to the world.

The subject is a catalyst, a character, but our responsibility is, has to be, to the work."

- David L. Ulin
  





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Wed May 02, 2018 12:17 pm
Radrook says...



Lightsong wrote:@Radrook: It's supposed to be in the first post, but if you can't see it, I'll submit this issue to other mods. Don't worry.


Thanks! Much appreciate it.
“Defamation; is an act of impiety.”
― Kristian Goldmund Aumann, The Seven Deadly Sins
  








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