Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

Verbs not only convey action and reveal personality in fiction, but they are capable of sharpening communication and meaning in non-fiction writing. The featured painting of horses by Lucy Kemp-Welch (‘Horses bathing in the sea’, 1899) captures the personality of each horse as they engage with the shoreline waves: one or two show fear, a couple rear, another hesitates, others submit. No words are used, but the viewer can see the activity and perhaps draw conclusions about each horse. Writers of fiction use verbs to evoke visual images and mood, whether they are writing about a place or a character; writers of non-fiction uses verbs to inform, persuade and command attention.

I plunged into the icy cold water.

“Don’t be crazy!” yelled Ruth.

My breathing quickened and my head began to pound as I splashed about, reaching for the box that had fallen overboard.

Strong verbs, such as those highlighted above, enliven the narrative with sound, movement and emotion. Peter Carey skillfully builds tension, atmosphere and personality through the verbs in this passage:

Maggs’s inky shadow flooded the crib. He leaned very close, so close indeed he might have bitten the child. Instead, he brought his wide nostrils almost up against that soapy skin and, with his arms clenched behind his back, inhaled John Marshall Oates’s breath. (Jack Maggs)

The power of Carey’s prose flows from the action of the verbs; most are strong verbs, and he uses adjectives sparingly. Many writers rely too heavily on adjectives to describe characters and places. Verbs can provide important clues to character; for example:

Sonya bickered with Tom about who should cook dinner. Tom acquiesced.

Consider the following two sentences: each convey the same information, but the second conveys a sense of the drama unfolding, and the personality of each character:

Harry saw the beautiful woman in the café.

Harry froze, staring at the beautiful woman as she sauntered towards him in the outdoor café, flicking her hair over one shoulder.

As I have written in a previous article on dialogue, body language gives clues to personality. Consider these two sentences: the second gives more clues to Margot’s personality and physiology:

“No, I don’t swim,” Margot said.

“No, I don’t swim,’ muttered Margot, lowering her eyes as she smoothed her skirt with her delicate fingers.

It is common to find dialogue between characters with ‘said’ identifying the speaker. Many authors prefer this usage. By no means is this wrong, but occasionally substituting more expressive verbs for ‘said’, as in the example above, can be advantageous.

Beware of nominalisation: using the noun form of the verb. This noun-style writing is frequently seen whenever we read non-fiction, or open an official document, or read a scholarly text.

Professor Holman conducted an investigation into the cause of the class mutiny.

By removing the nominalisation, the verb takes over the action and delivers a punchier sentence.

Detective Holman investigated the cause of the class mutiny.

Noun-style writing is impersonal because it steals the action from the verb, which ends up becoming a kind of abstract noun followed by a prepositional phrase. Verb-styles convey ideas or action—someone or something must act. Noun-styles are static and lengthen sentences unnecessarily, making the writing ponderous and less lively . . . particularly in fiction. In reality, few writers consistently maintain a clear style preference, and good writing can mingle the two.

Here is a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It is a fine example of the way she uses verbs to lead the reader through her description of night:

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where golden letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

This passage draws the reader’s attention to Woolf’s masterful phrases that evoke a reflective mood, intensified through alliteration: “describe death”, “cool cathedral caves”, “bones, bleach and burn”. I am so tempted to convert Woolf’s writing into a poem (forgive me, Virginia . . . and those poets who are reading this):

The autumn trees, ravaged as they are,

take on the flash of tattered flags kindling

in the gloom of cool cathedral caves

where golden letters on marble pages

describe death in battle

and how bones bleach and burn

far away in Indian sands.

The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight,

in the light of harvest moons,

the light which mellows the energy of labour,

and smooths the stubble,

and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

 

So far, I have ignored adjectives, but they are always present, and sometimes in over-abundance, squeezing out those muscly verbs.  Surprisingly, this is the case in Simon Winchester’s opening paragraph of his acclaimed non-fiction book The Map that Changed the World:

The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned grey, showery and refreshingly cool in London, promising a welcome end to a week-long spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital’s citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood.

Winchester even uses a verb qualifier (‘seemed to’), which is a no-no for many writing gurus! But he certainly sets the scene, and proves that the earnest writer shouldn’t be too hung up on writing rules. As writing grump, Simon Heffer, writes: “Given the tenses, voices, moods and other properties of verbs (are they transitive, intransitive, or both?) there is plenty of scope to mangle their usage.”  However, verbs can inject cinematic magic into your writing without reliance on adjectives to colour and plump up the nouns.

Next time I will consider the different voices of verbs: the active versus the passive voice.

 

(The featured painting is by Lucy Kemp-Welch, ‘Horses bathing in the sea’, 1899, oil on canvas, 152.9 × 306.5 cm, NGV, Melbourne)

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