Saturday, January 16, 2010

The personality of verbs

Today's Mood: Hmmm, sort of grumpy, I guess. Today's Music: None (maybe that's why I'm grumpy.) Today's Writing: Nothing yet (another reason to be grumpy.) Today's quote:
That's her [the writer's] skill--to be affected more than others by "absent things," and to express them in words as they arise. A writer draws her heart close to that of another--lets herself slip--into the "beat" of another. - from The Intuitive Writer: listening to your own voice by Gail Sher

I've been talking with my creative writing class about verbs--vivid verbs and action verbs. And I got thinking about how much you can develop character just by watching your verbs. Maybe you all already knew this, but for some reason, I never put the two together--at least, not consciously. Yup, I remember my teachers talking about using the active voice instead of the passive voice. it makes your writing more coherent and less wordy. But I don't remember my teachers ever talking about how much I could develop character by paying strict attention to the verbs I used. Sure, most characters walk, but does my character swagger, or meander, or rush? Says a lot about the personality right there. When that character (let's call her Saffy) talks, does she lisp? slur? whisper? shout? question? drawl? And how about when Saffy looks at something. Does she stare? glare? peek? gaze? glance?

Saffy swaggered down the hall glaring at everyone in sight.
Saffy meandered down the hall gazing at everyone in sight.
Saffy slunk down the hall peeking at everyone through the curtain of her hair. (okay, so I added some to this one.)

I can change the personality of the character just by changing the verbs I use.

Hopefully I've done this in my writing in the past. What I'd like to do now, is INTENTIONALLY use verbs to create character. Granted, I'll have to do most of this in the revision/edit stage. I don't want to spend too long hunting for the perfect verb while I'm rough drafting. Shoot, I overthink things as it is. I'm finding (in my own very slow and laborious way) that writing fast can be good for me. It can help get the initial flow of the story down on the paper. Often it helps preserve the raw emotion of the piece from wherever it came from inside me. Revision is where I can fine-tune it. Polish it. Finesse it into the beauty it is meant to be.

How deliberate are you with your verbs? Do you work at it in the rough stage, or look them over afterward in revision?


Stacy McKitrick said...

When I first started writing, I didn't pay much attention to the verbs I used. As I edited (and edited and edited) my first novel, I paid more attention and would search for the perfect verb. That attention (and use) has helped me in writing my second book. I find they come to me easier, since I've used them in the past. It really is a learning process that comes easier with use. That makes me happy!

smcelrath said...

And it makes me happy to hear you say that it comes easier with use. Easier would be nice. I have a bachelors in English and a degree to teach English--and yet, funny how many things about the English language and writing that I didn't learn until I started writing--and (like Stacy) editing and editing and editing.

Maybe I didn't learn certain things because I never worked at a piece of writing long enough. In school you try to get it written and polished enough to get a decent grade. In publishing, well, let's just say it has to be a wee bit more polished.

outdoorwriter said...

I am aware of verb choices during the "creative/rough phase" but really tweek them during editing sessions. I recently had an opportunity where another author felt a certain way about a product. I used condemned (too strong) mailgned (not quite right) and finally arrived at scorned.

I think verbs can absolutely define a character, especially if he/she acts a certain way: swaggers, shuffles, limps, staggers, etc.

I sure enjoy your food for thought, Sarah.

smcelrath said...

Hey Larry,

Good to hear from you. Scorned--I like that one. Might have to put that on my list of words to use this week.

Are you going to Khardomah? Hope you are; I haven't seen you in quite some time.

outdoorwriter said...


I should go to Khardoma--I really need the feedback. I've been in a slump lately. But I hadn't planned to. I'd commute every day, so I think I could still squeeze in. Plus I enjoy seeing every one and meeting new people. I'll give it serious thought.

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