Monday, January 16, 2017

Action Verbs: Parts of Speech in Writing

Our language is built on eight parts of speech. Those parts are the building blocks of every sentence every writer writes. They can be manipulated to express beautiful, romantic, inspiring, imaginative things, and they can be manipulated to express unintelligent or uninteresting things no one cares to read. The order of the building blocks creates variety, voice, and meaning (among other things). They determine where punctuation is to be placed. Knowledge of them elicits proper grammar. I taught English for thirty years, I’ve written five novels, and I edit books as a current “career.” I found it difficult to teach writing in the past, and I’m finding it even more difficult in the present to content and line edit without referencing or teaching the parts of speech. I imagine it would be no different than teaching auto mechanics without teaching the car parts and the tools to manipulate them. This entry is the first of a series of blogs by which I intend to help readers learn some things about our language that will help them become better writers. Because I’m ever-learning, maybe it’ll help me be a better writer and editor as well.

Teaching the parts of speech has one difficult obstacle that I’ve never figured out how to completely overcome. It’s extremely difficult to start with one and simply move along. They overlap. They work together. It’s hard to talk about one without ever mentioning others. They aren’t simply building blocks that one can build upon the other. However, experience has taught me that the best, most logical place to begin is with verbs. If one part of speech can be more important than another, then I vote for verbs. There are three kinds of verbs: action, helping, and linking. Today, I’m going to focus on action verbs. They’re easiest, and the writing tips that apply are especially important.

Action verbs show…well, action. Physical action is obvious, but action verbs include mental action—action of the mind (words like consider, wonder, believe, and hypothesize). Verbs tell what is being done. Some action verbs are transitive, leading to something that receives the action (Donald Trump said something stupid) and some are intransitive with nothing receiving the action (Hillary Clinton lied again). “Something” is the direct object of “said.” You could ask the question “Said what?” and the answer would be “something stupid.” “Lied” doesn’t have a direct object. You could ask “Lied what?” and there is no answer because lied is intransitive. This same thing can apply to mental action. I considered jogging. “Considered” is a transitive action verb with “jogging” as the direct object. I deliberated for less than ten seconds (because I don’t jog). “Deliberated” is an intransitive verb because there is no answer to “deliberated what?” That’s pretty much all you need to know about action verbs, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is action spurs imagination. Our minds can visualize action. It can be pleasant looking at a picture, but watching a video is more likely to get our blood pumping. Writers need to use action verbs to create action-packed possibilities in our readers’ minds. All writers have heard the saying “Show; don’t tell.” Well, action verbs show. Instead of saying, “You’re brilliant,” he said sarcastically, you can say, Mike rolled his eyes. “You’re brilliant.” He shook his head as he walked away. The reader saw a scene of action and figured out that the speaker was being sarcastic.

How about this: The tips of Mike’s fingers met above the bridge of his nose. His thumbs hooked under his jaw, hiding his nose and mouth from my view, but I could see his wide eyes and his knee as it bounced frantically. That’s an action-packed description of Mike: met, hooked, could see, bounced. Or I could say this: Mike seemed scared. He was covering his face with his hands and his knee was bouncing uncontrollably. There are no action verbs in the second set of sentences. The verbs are seemed, was, and was. The first set is active while the second set is passive. Active is better.

And some verbs are better than others. “Thought” isn’t as specific as “planned.” “Walked” is far less specific than “hobbled.” Why say “ate greedily” when you can say “devoured”? Why say “read and remembered” when you can say “absorbed”? Something can break or it can chip, crack, shatter, or splinter. Words have specific meanings which paint specific pictures. (Let me interrupt and say that a thesaurus is a wonderful thing). What I’m obviously pointing out is that great action verbs can paint specific pictures, often saving the writer words.

But that leads me to mention something that is just the opposite. I’ve noticed many knowledgeable authors comment about dialogue tags. I’m going to throw in that many people don’t punctuate dialogue correctly (that will mostly be dealt with in another blog), but then I’m going to mention that many authors say the words “said” and "asked" are practically the only dialogue tags a writer needs. No author is going to write an entire novel without using a synonym for said at least occasionally, but what many successful authors are saying is to throw away the thesaurus for dialogue tags. All those wonderful synonyms aren’t needed--some are actually awkward and detract from the writing. So here is where everything I said above is thrown out the window for dialogue tags. Don’t use more specific words or add words to tell how the speaker is speaking. Again, you need to show instead of tell, especially when the telling adds –ly words (adverbs).

“Come here,” Lexi purred seductively should be more like “Come here,” Lexi said. She beckoned with her finger, lust in her eyes.

“Put your hands in the air,” Duke growled menacingly should be more like “Put your hands in the air,” said Duke. He glared over the shot gun, his teeth clenched in anger. Less synonyms and adverbs; more specific description.

And while I’m on dialogue, a dialogue tag is used to express words for said. Smiled, for instance, is not a way of speaking. “You look beautiful,” he smiled isn’t punctuated correctly. The comma rule says to put a comma to set off the dialogue tag, but “smiled” isn’t a way of speaking, so it doesn’t fit the rule. It should be “You look beautiful.” He smiled. Or, better, put “He smiled” first. 

So lesson one on the parts of speech is about action verbs. Make your writing action-packed. Use the active rather than the passive voice. Use more specific verbs. But when it comes to dialogue, simplify your dialogue tags and show rather than tell. 

***If you are a writer, looking for an editor, please visit this link and connect with me.