How to build plot, scene and character with verbs
Verbs, in this equation, are the predicament — aka, the muddle our subject finds herself in. And that’s also known as the obstacle, or the inciting moment of a story.
“You can think on a really big level, like, I’m writing this magazine story and I need characters and scenes,” Hale says. “Well, that’s true in the story writ large. But the story writ small is at the sentence level. You need character, scene and plot at the sentence level, too. That’s precision. You can’t apply it to every sentence, but it’s basically what we’re doing.”
Take this passage from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Ken Kesey — high, paranoid and alone in a house in Puerto Vallarta — fears that each passing car contains Mexican police coming to arrest him.
This is no job for adjectives! Wolfe imagines Kesey’s interior monologue in the imperative voice:
“Haul ass, Kesey. Move. Scram. Split flee hide vanish disintegrate. Like run.”
How can you choose verbs that drive the action of your story?
Verbs set the scene.
Verbs can help you set the scene for storytelling. In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Hale compares two paragraphs by Jo Ann Beard.
The first paragraph is quiet. The subjects are sitting in a boat, waiting for something to happen. Like the moment, most of the verbs are static:
“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake. They sit slumped like men, facing in opposite directions, drinking coffee out of a metal-sided thermos, smoking intently. Without their lipstick they look strangely weary, and passive, like pale replicas of their real selves. They both have a touch of morning sickness but neither is admitting it. Instead, they watch their bobbers and argue about worms versus minnows.”
In the second paragraph, though, day starts to break — and so do the verbs:
“It is five a.m. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads. One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.”
How can you choose verbs that set the scene in your copy?
Verbs build character.
Too often, we build people out of adjectives and nouns: green eyes, white hair, thicker around the middle at 55 than she was at 50.
Instead, Hale suggests, build character with verbs.
“By taking a moment and watching your subject,” Hale says. “Watch the way the subject moves. Watch the way a subject does a mundane thing. Notice the ways the subject’s words tumble out — or don’t. … That can be a very powerful way to convey character in few words.”
Donald M. Murray, writing coach and author of Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, agrees.
“A character’s action is a very efficient form of description,” he writes. “He sits down and the chair breaks; the reader discovers the character is portly as a writing coach.”
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, Paul Harding uses this technique to introduce readers to the main character’s wife:
“He married a woman named Megan Finn who talked without pause from the moment she woke — Well the good lord has given me another day! shall I cook eggs and ham or flapjacks and bacon? I have some blueberries left but those eggs will go bad if I don’t use them and I can put the blueberries in a cobbler for dessert tonight because I know how much you love cobbler and how the sugar crust soothes you to sleep like warm milk does a crabby baby although I don’t know why because I saw somewhere that sugar winds a person up but I’m not going to argue with what works — until she went to sleep: Oh! Another day tucked away and here we are tired and honest and in love and happy as two peas in a pod, two peas in a pod! isn’t that silly? peas don’t come in pairs! if they did it wouldn’t be worth it snapping them open, it’d take too long to even get a spoonful never mind enough to fill from nine o’clock to twelve o’clock, that’s how the blind know where the food is on their plates, like a clock, ham at six-thirty! biscuit at four! just like that, that’s how Helen Keller did it, I bet, just like that, potatoes at high noon! goodnight my love.“
How can you build character through verbs?
Uncover just the right verb.
So how do you find the best word? Hale offers this advice:
“Sometimes we don’t do the fourth or fifth or sixth step, which is to go back and look at our sentences and look at every single noun. … I mean, how many times have you written the word house without even thinking about it? The possibilities are endless: bungalow, cabin, crashpad, condo, Tudor, Victorian. There are so many possibilities there that make the noun more precise and more visual and help your reader see the thing.
“The same thing is true with verbs. For most of us, the grand default verb is is. We talk in ‘ises’ and ‘ares’ and ‘weres,’ and we often express our ideas with that verb. But that’s the ultimate boring verb. By choosing — I call them static verbs — you’re missing the opportunity to tell a little drama… When you use static verbs you’re depriving your sentences of that.”
Sources: Paige Williams, “Building better sentences: Connie Hale on verbs, nouns, Vikings, scenes, geek speak, grammar wars and rewiring bad lines,” Nieman Storyboard, Nov. 9, 2012
Constance Hale, “Make-or-break verbs,” The New York Times, April 16, 2012
Paige Williams, “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: All Hale verbs,” Nieman Storyboard, Nov. 8, 2012.