Thursday, February 3, 2022

Lights! Camera! Action! Starring: Versatile, Vivacious Verbs

By Beth Anderson


When I write an historical picture book, I see a movie in my head, and the challenge is bringing that movie to the page. Illustrations will partner in the process, but the words I choose need to create scenes, provide action, and invite the reader into the experience of the main character. To accomplish this, verbs take front and center stage. 

LIGHTS come first when you spotlight a character, event, and angle to hook the reader. In this thought process, one vital verb guides me—“take away,” as in, What do I want readers to take away? Then, before I start drafting, I brainstorm words that will support theme, character, topics, and imagery—including a list of verbs. Here are a few examples of "priming the pump” and “filling the bucket."

battle, surrender, resist, fight, give up, unite… [An Inconvenient Alphabet]

sniff, permeate, smell, reek, inhale, investigate, detect… [“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses]

Then, it’s time to make the past come alive.

The CAMERA carries the reader through the telling. If you examine the “camera” in a story, most often you’ll see it zooms and pulls back—in and out of scenes, from big picture to character interior. If it’s all close, all distant, or hangs in the middle, you lose potential drama that propels a reader.

When I learned about close/deep third person narration, about “proximity” and “psychic distance,” my writing changed. And the secret was in the verbs. “Head verbs,” or “filter verbs,” add an extra layer that distances the reader—the narrator layer. Words like heard, saw, decided, and other “head” actions serve as filters that dilute the action. To bring the reader INTO the main character’s experience, try eliminating these verbs and directly connecting the reader to the main character—go from reporting to experiencing:

          She heard a crash. vs. BOOM! 

          He wondered where it came from. vs. Where did it come from? 

This intimacy feels a lot like first person narration, but by using close third, you have greater access to the world beyond that one character.

This same concept is also in play when you move from indirect speech to direct speech. (This choice gets tricky with strict nonfiction.)

          He told her to get off… vs. “Get off.”  [Lizzie Demands a Seat!]

Often a story about a person from the past involves a thought process or dilemmas and can be less than exciting on the page. Dig into the interior conflict. Eliminating head verbs enhances point of view, builds character, and “shows” instead of “tells.” Oddly enough, sometimes cutting verbs helps keep a story active.

 ACTION is essential to moving a story forward, engaging young readers, and connecting to history in a meaningful way. Even static elements of a story like “state of being,” context, and setting can benefit from some action.

The first and easiest rule for action is to dump BE verbs whenever possible. AM, IS, ARE, WAS, and WERE are empty verbs. THERE WERE and IT WAS beg for replacements, too. Other “verbs of being” such as SEEM and BECOME often don’t contribute much either.

Franz was a curious child. vs. …Franz’s mind sparked with wonder. [Franz’s Phantasmagorical Machine]        

In nonfiction, providing the context readers need to understand the complexities of a different time and place often results in the dreaded information dump. That necessary context impacts character and is integral to conflict, so we need to interlace those ideas.  

How do circumstances affect their actions? For example, in Revolutionary Prudence Wright, taxes and boycotts must be meaningful without a convoluted explanation.

No British tea! Prudence grew herbs and made her own Liberty Tea.

No British cloth! She spun flax into linen and wove homespun fabric.

NO British sugar! She boiled maple sap into syrup.

No gloves or garments, no ribbons or buttons, no glass or paper! She would do without. Prudence could live with inconvenience and additional work. But she couldn’t live with unjust laws and stolen rights.

Even physical setting can come alive to enhance character, conflict, imagery, and themes. How would your character perceive the location? In Smelly Kelly and His Super Senses, the reader experiences the setting through the character’s super-senses via active, sensory verbs.

The metropolis hummed. Buildings stretched to the sky. Scents familiar and foreign wafted in the breeze.

 Specificity is also golden. Connotation adds depth. The right verb lets you cut adverbs. Or can ring with theme, provide a twist, or add humor.

…unwilling to take liberties with their language. [An Inconvenient Alphabet--American Revolution era]

Finally, we all hear the admonition against passive verbs, where the “actor” is not up front taking responsibility for the action in a sentence, or not mentioned at all. Passives can hide an antagonist and minimize conflict. Reframing amps up the telling.

Tad was frustrated by his lessons. vs. Lessons launched him down the hall and out the door. [Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle]

Verbs are “energizers” that power a story. Of course, like the code for pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean, what I share is more what you call guidelines than actual rules. I confess an upcoming release has WAS in the first and last sentences, and more. It has IT WAS, and some head verbs. But sometimes you need a verb to fade back for something else to come forward. Or need a head verb to make a character present. Or just need the simplest way to state an idea. It’s all about choices to make your movie come alive.


Give it a Try      

Highlight all verbs in a WIP. Do you see patterns? Overused verbs? BE verbs? Where can you cut head verbs to zoom in? Where can you interlace action with context? Where can you add action or more specific verbs? What differences do your new choices make?


About the Author

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth is the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. She has more historical picture books on the way, including three more stories of revolution, wonder, and possibility in 2022.  



 



 

67 comments:

  1. Thank you, Beth. These are great suggestions and apply to all types of writing. Finding the right verb is like discovering a buried treasure!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Beth, this is a MASTERCLASS in a post! I'm taking this along with your other comments on my pb bio MS and getting back to work! Thank you for something I'll come back to again and again.

    ReplyDelete
  3. WOW! I will refer to this blog again and again. You gave so much information in such a succinct way. THANK YOU!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Beth! Wow! I am printing your post to put by my desk! ❤️ Love it. You rock!

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is indeed a masterclass! Thank you:)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you, Beth. I love this post! (And your books.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks so much for the examples, Beth! Examples bring advice to life! Examples are GOLD! My brain connects when I'm shown!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you--looking for head verbs now!

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a great way to think of a manuscript! "go from reporting to experiencing" stuck out for me, and is something to strive for. Thank you for the great examples, Beth, and much continued success to you!

    ReplyDelete
  10. What an awesome post. I agree with Jessica: this IS indeed a Masterclass!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you for providing examples. I'll be combing through some manuscripts today.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you for these great examples for using the best word choices.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Wow, what a brilliant post! The clear and succinct examples really drive the message home - I'll definitely be printing this out to refer back to over and over again! Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  14. This post is complete with Lights! Camera! and Action!

    Thank you, Beth!

    You and your books are admired.

    Suzy Leopold

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you, Beth. Great things to think about. And your examples helped visualize it.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Great tips! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thank you Beth for the wealth of information!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I loved this post, especially the example from Prudence Wright where you provided context. That is one of the hardest things to do without breaking up the flow, cadence, etc. of the story. Very effective!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Terrific advice with great examples from your book, Beth!

    ReplyDelete
  20. A terrific post. I like the game element of highlighting verbs and focusing on one element only.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Great post. Great guidance for NF writers. Examples of tight, beautiful, compelling NF writing throughout. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Oh Beth, this is such an active article. You hit the nail on the head or Bang! Thank you so much. I'm revising an old tale and active noisy words are popping inside my head. All children's writers, fiction or nonfiction, can use your advice. Thank you!!!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Wow--great post with wonderful advice! I'm going to share this with my critique partners, as these tips are valuable for writing fiction as well as nonfiction.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thank you Beth! I learned a lot of new things about verbs. Your examples are very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Complete new perspective on verbs. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Oh my! Beth, thank you for delving into the subject of verbs. Your tips and examples are in my writer's toolbox. I've got a plethora of notes and ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  27. This is so wonderful. Thank you, Beth. I am excited to dig into my WIP and look at my verbs!

    ReplyDelete
  28. Fantastic steps to review! Time for Action!

    ReplyDelete
  29. Excellent advice and examples. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  30. This post is great! Thank you, Beth. “Give It a Try” exercise is the jump-start I needed to get through my latest revision.

    ReplyDelete
  31. What a vibrant, creative post. If THAT doesn’t encourage people to write nonfiction for kids, NOTHING will!

    Great post!

    Donna L Martin
    Story Catcher Publishing

    ReplyDelete
  32. Thank you for pointing out that the secret to proximity is in the verbs. So powerful!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Great advice! I just went to one of my WIP's and made changes. Sounds better already.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Thank you Beth for this great information.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Beth’s blog post was good vs. Beth packed her post with tons of great information! (How did I do?) Learned a lot from this - thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  36. This post bursts with information! I'll be referring back to it often. Thanks so much, Beth

    ReplyDelete
  37. Superb suggestions Beth! I am bookmarking this for future reference!

    ReplyDelete
  38. BETH: WOW! I SERIOUSLY feel like I just took an AMAZING writing course--JUST by reading your post! I'm keeping this one on "SPEED DIAL," as well as reading and RESEARCHING your books to continue to INSPIRE my own writing. THANK YOU for the INSPIRATION to use nonfiction writing as a conduit for "accidental learning in the midst of a great story." This is TRULY a GIFT! THANK YOU!!!

    ReplyDelete
  39. A huge thank you, Beth! This helped me revise a story I've had shouting at me from the sidelines to pay attention! This post is packed with so much great information!

    ReplyDelete
  40. Thank you, Beth! Your clear examples and "head verb" explanation gave me one of those ah-ha moments I cherish.

    ReplyDelete
  41. This is an extremely helpful post. There is so much useful information here that can be directly put to use. Very grateful for this post.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I'm printing this out, Beth! Thanks for all the helpful tips! Can't wait for your new books!

    ReplyDelete
  43. Beth, thank you for spotlighting verbs! So powerful!

    ReplyDelete
  44. Thank you, Beth. Power packed with action and advice.

    ReplyDelete
  45. As a teacher, I've preached the power of action verbs to my students for years. But I never delineated "head" verbs from other action verbs. I love your suggestion to go from "reporting to experiencing." Brilliant!

    ReplyDelete
  46. Great advice and so sharable for both fiction and non-fiction! Will be sharing with my Rate Your Story Community! Thanks for the great lesson!

    ReplyDelete
  47. Great advice, thanks for the examples.

    ReplyDelete
  48. Brilliant advice for revising! Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  49. Thank you so much, Beth! I'm neck deep in a MG ms right now. But your post still applies.

    ReplyDelete
  50. This is such a fantastic post, Beth! And a timely one, as I spent my afternoon brainstorming verbs for my current WIP. I particularly appreciate your insights about close third POV...this is something I'm working on and paying attention to!

    ReplyDelete
  51. Thanks, Beth! This is really helpful, as are all your blog posts. I always enjoy them!

    ReplyDelete
  52. Thank you, Beth for these insights. You have given me much to ponder as I revise and polish. I look forward to reading your books.

    ReplyDelete
  53. So, so, sooooo helpful! I appreciate the specific examples. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reading this for my fourth time this month as I revise my story. A golden post! <3

      Delete
  54. Thanks for pointing out Head Verbs.

    ReplyDelete
  55. Great post! Thank you. I'll now be pulling out all my WIPs and taking another look at each and every verb!!

    ReplyDelete
  56. What a helpful post loaded with examples I can go back to. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  57. Danya Vasquez DavidFebruary 8, 2022 at 6:09 PM

    So helpful! Looking forward to trying this out! Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  58. Wonderful post Beth! I love your sepecific examples and and the focus of treating your MS like a movie. I have just the one to try this out with. Thanks so much.

    ReplyDelete
  59. Oh my gosh! Saving and sharing far and wide! Thanks Beth!!!

    ReplyDelete
  60. This post is fantastic! Thank you, Beth.

    ReplyDelete
  61. OMG! This post is a light bulb moment of finally understanding for me. GREAT examples. Great info.

    ReplyDelete
  62. Thank you, Beth! Some days the right guidance comes at the right time. Printing this and keeping it front and center as I write today.

    ReplyDelete
  63. What a fun to look at pacing. I really like the idea of the camera zooming in and out from the big picture to the deep thoughts of the character.

    ReplyDelete
  64. Just coming back to say thank you. Your exercise really helped me with my current WIP.

    ReplyDelete