Friday, September 28, 2012

How To Use Verbs; Verbing; Verbosity

This is a problem that comes often when someone is writing:  There's an action going on in whatever it is that's on paper, and you (the author) have no idea how to explain it.  For example, your protagonist is going out to Mc'Donalds, but you've already used that phrase twice.  Repetition can be a serious problem in a story, so you need a better way for them to explain their plan to their friends, other than "Going out to McDonalds."

"I'm on a McRun," the hero says, dashing off to get his fries.

A second character responds, "Wait!  What's McRunning?!"

And you, the author, are left saying, "Huh."

Verbs, as we should know through reading my old Parts of Speech Infographic, are "action words."  They describe what people, characters, what-have-you are doing.  "Drive" is a popular example.  "Describe" could be another.  These are things that we do.  But using them in an appropriate, effective manner is another story entirely.

Sometimes, a verb can stand alone.  "Running" can serve as a classification of a hobby; people like "running," and regularly use it as a Google search.  Sometimes you just need to use good adverbs.  Adverbs are words used to better describe a verb.  Let's take, as a simple example, "He drove expertly."

"He" is a noun; "drove" is the past-tense of "drive," so it's our verb in this short sentence; "expertly" describes how this random guy drives.  A reader will know, therefore, that "he" is an expert driver.  Of course, you could nit-pick something this isolated-in-the-void (void-dwelling, perhaps?) down - "He drove expertly" implies that in at least one incident, said "he" happened to indeed seem like an amazing wheelman, but that this past incident might well have been a lucky shot and...

...Wait, what just happened?  I just found another way to explain "he drove expertly," while simultaneously mocking that very phrase!  Words are like that; they have connotations as well as denotations - they have interpreted meanings which can differ from their literal ones.  A "Wheel Man" sounds like a beast from a video game; a "wheelman" is an ace driver.  Of course, the term "wheelman" is also often used in crime stories, to refer to the guy who drives the vehicle and must, therefore, drive expertly.  And in-so-far as being something can be being that verb, being a "wheelman" is something you always are; "wheelmanning," or "manning the wheel" is what you sometimes do...

Maybe we need another example.

Let's look at "Blogger."

A "Blogger" is someone who "Blogs."  A "Blog" is...Well, this is a blog, but that doesn't explain much!  This is more like a place for some crazy word-ninja to write down random ideas at 11:00 PM!  In all seriousness, though, a "blog" is basically a journal where an author writes up and distributes articles.  With me so far?  And I have no idea how the word "blog" got started - I'm sure there's a good reason, I just don't know it off-hand and I don't feel like researching it.  Call me lazy.

What I do know is that the authors of a "Blog" were immediately "verbed," with their writing suddenly referred to as "Blogging."  "Bloggers" was a natural evolution; it's simply someone who "Blogs," which is the act of "Blogging."  But if you look wayyyy up at the top of your address bar, you'll notice that this website is a .blogspot website - a spot for blogs, right?  Yes - and no!  For "Blogspot" is actually a Google-owned sub-company called "Blogger."

I am, now, a blogger.  I write blog posts.  I write entire blogs!  Yet I am not Blogger, the service.

You will notice, by now, that I seem to be going off on tangents a lot.  You might even have noticed that this blog entry's title begins with "How To Use Verbs."  It does not say the following...

How to Use Verbs Effectively

The reason why I've waited until now to "get serious" is that, frankly, writing is about timing.  The first thing this rule implies is that everyone has their own timing; when timing differs between writer and reader, there can be a dissonance which can make the writer's work hard to read - if not render it altogether intolerable!

More importantly, however, is the fact that timing means knowing which verb to use, when, and how.  A lot of times this is simply technical; to write, as a sentence, "Next, the computer activated" is entirely mysterious. Does the computer activate on its own?  How?  Is it artificially intelligent?  It's just a lot of questions, and if there aren't any immediate answers, readers will start to sense that aforementioned dissonance.  They will get lost.  Instead...

"Next, Bob activated the computer."  Now we know that Bob is involved in this picture, and that he activated the computer.  Suddenly a reader has an idea of what's going on.  But how did Bob activate it?  Did he just tap an on switch?  Or, like a movie hero, did he turn it on with his mind?  Maybe that sentence needs a little more work.  Let's step up our game!

"Next, Bob knelt down and plugged in the old computer tower; it roared to life, courtesy of its creaky fans which discourteously spat dust back into Bob's face."

Wow.  So now we have a real clear picture of this Bob Plus Computer shindig.  His motivations are unclear, and while one might make inferences (he's searching for an ancient file!), that's for another sentence to explain.  From what's written in this example, you can see that by sprucing up the diction (word-choice) and adding a hint of complexity, we've actually taken a lot of the guess-work out of what's going on.  We know that Bob plugged in the computer.  We know its old.  We know Bob physically had to do things, and we know Bob isn't gonna be happy about all that dust in his face.

All in all, I only wrote this article because I was curious what my take on an article about verbs would be.  I've never really written one before, and here we have it!  It's not scholarly, it's hardly serious, but it has a point it's trying to get across.  Hopefully you'll agree that a point was made.

Shameless self-promotion

And, hey, if you like my style, buy my book!

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