In our last post, Making Effective Revisions: Timid Phrasing (Series, Post 2), we discussed why words must be carefully chosen to have their greatest effect. If you are writing a first draft, this post contains good information, but get that story written before you begin fine-tuning it. I strongly suggest you don’t agonize over word choices until you are in the revision process.
In the English language, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and therefore carry more power.
Verbs are power/action words. How we use them makes our work active and immediate, or passive and makes the reader an observer rather than a participant.
VERBALIZE by Damon Suede is an excellent resource for authors who want to understand the many nuances of verbs and their importance. He is a writing craft educator as well as a best-selling Romance author.
We may not know how Suede will come out in the current hyperdramatic RWA kerfuffle, but one thing Suede understands is how to write active prose. VERBALIZE is jammed with hard-hitting, rapid-fire information, just like his seminars.
The one problem I have with this book is the barrage of information. There is a lot going on visually as well as informationally. I find it easiest to absorb the book in small doses, which allows me to think about what he is saying.
I read a bit, think a bit, and write a lot.
If you learn nothing else from reading his book or attending one of his seminars, verb placement is crucial. What Suede has to say about verbs, their importance in character development, and how best to place them in the sentence is well worth the cost of the book.
We all know verbs are action words. That means they are all forceful, right?
Not exactly. Some verb forms weaken the narrative.
An infinitive verb is a verb with the word “to” in front of it:
Without the word “to,” each of the above words is just a base verb. They are finite, limited. They are the action, end of story.
When you add the word “to” in front of the action, it is no longer finite—it becomes unlimited, or infinite: an infinitive.
This lack of boundaries creates a passive voice when telling a story.
For some, more literary narratives, occasionally injecting the passive voice into prose is appropriate. It can make a passage feel poetic if that is the author’s intent.
However, for genre fiction, we want our work to have an active voice. To that end, we avoid the overuse of infinitives.
When we first begin sharing our work in writers’ groups, we are shown instances where our use of infinitives creates a passive narrative, separating the reader from the action.
A less experienced author might try to combat that by changing some verbs into what they think is a more active form: the gerund. By doing this, they are actually changing verbs into a form that is derived from a verb but functions as a noun. In English, gerunds are verbs ending in -ing.
There are no exceptions. Example: asking, as in do you mind my asking you?
A side bit of trivia: in modern speech, expressions such as “can’t stand,” “couldn’t help,” and “it’s no use” are frequently followed by gerunds:
SO: a gerund is a form of a verb used as a noun. But what about the present participle? A participle is a form of verb used as an adjective or as a verb in conjunction with an auxiliary verb.
In English, the present participle has the same form as the gerund, in that it is a verb ending in -ing. The difference is in how they are used.
Consider the verb walk, as in to step forward. When used with an auxiliary verb (is walking), it serves as a verb and is the present participle.
When used as an adjective, such as in a walking contradiction, it is also a participle. However, when used as a noun (walking is difficult when going uphill), it is a gerund.
Phrasal Verbs: We use phrasal verbs all the time in our daily speech and in our writing. Phrasal verbs are two or three words (an action word + modifiers) forming what can be considered a separate verb-unit with a specific meaning. In other words, they use more words than are needed to express a thought:
We use these phrasings because they sound natural to us. It’s the way people in your area might speak. But when used too frequently in a written piece, phrasal verbs junk up the narrative. They subtly contribute to what we call “purple prose” because the overuse of them separates the reader from the story.
For that reason, we should look for simpler ways to phrase our thoughts when writing. The exception would be when we write conversations spoken in the local vernacular.
Choosing which bits of backstory are important to convey and binding them into small packets inserted only when the reader needs to know is critical. Impart that information by using verbs and words beginning with consonants to evoke powerful feelings.
Use power words in conversations to distribute packets of exposition (backstory). In this way, you can give both the reader and the characters necessary information without resorting to a blatant info dump.
All words—verbs or nouns or adverbs or adjectives--all words have their place in our writing process. The way you choose and combine them is your voice, your style. However, if we are writing science fiction or fantasy, or mystery, or a thriller—using an active voice is the key to conveying a sense of immediacy and emotion.
Place your verbs toward the beginning of most of your sentences and make minimal use of gerunds and phrasal verbs. Front-loading your sentences with the action makes the prose more active. Active prose draws the reader into the action and creates an emotional bond with the characters and their situation.
Readers remember books that involved and moved them emotionally. They insist their friends must read them.
Authors want to be remembered for having written a story that so moved a reader emotionally that they had to talk about it and share the book with a friend.
To me, there is no higher praise.
Credits and Attributions:
Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine fantasy novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.