The Emotional Power of VerbsBy KAREN E. BENDER
The characters in my students’ stories were not quite jumping off the page. The characters were clear and beautifully described, but sometimes I felt a bit impatient reading them. The problem was not with the descriptions — my students skillfully created characters with nouns and adjectives, constructing the characters and their world so that I knew them. The issue was that everything seemed to be still and perfect as a photograph.
“Stop thinking about nouns and adjectives when you’re creating characters,” I told my students one day. “Think verbs.”
I was a little hesitant to dismiss those pillars of language, nouns and adjectives. But it was time for the characters to move. “For this draft,” I said. “Just try to think of your characters in terms of action. Verbs have their own poetry. Use them.”
I believe that writers come to their work with biases toward certain parts of speech. I tend to be an adjective person. When I began writing, I decided that I wanted my fiction to be “sticky.” This means that I like to luxuriate in long descriptions — words like green and bitter and sparkly and wet are ones that I could arrange in sentences for hours on end. Adjectives are often about engaging the sensory and concrete, and for a while, they were all I wanted to bring to a story.
I was reluctant to include action then. It seemed somehow crass. Why did I need to make a character actually do anything? Wasn’t it enough that she was sitting here, brightly decorated with adjectives?
My reluctance to let my characters do anything had to do with two issues: first, I didn’t see the poetry in verbs, or in action; and, second, in my stories, I often didn’t know what would happen next. I enjoyed writing about a moment, but not about a process.
I think that finding the verbs, the actions that create a character and, thus, a story, have to do with stepping back from the moment and thinking about the architecture of the whole piece. Finding this movement inside a story can sometimes mean slowing down the creative process. But for me, this has been helpful. For those writers who are not as interested in thinking about action, I would suggest they think about action imbued with feeling.
Form your characters in terms of actions that will reveal their interior lives. If you want to describe a dress your character is wearing, think about how she is moving out the door in that dress. Is the woman walking, hurrying, sauntering, floating? While adjectives reveal the stickiness of the world, how a character inhabits it, verbs reveal the way a character interacts with it. They are not merely about action, but emotion.
Here are a few examples. Here’s the first line from John Cheever’s “O City of Broken Dreams”: “When the train from Chicago left Albany and began to pound down the river valley toward New York, the Malloys, who had already experienced many phases of excitement, felt their breathing quicken, as if there were not enough air in the coach.”
This is the perfect opening to this story, which follows the way the Malloys are tricked by various unsavory figures in the city. The verbs here — the train pounds and the breathing quickens immediately reveal two things — the power of the experience that will happen to them and the fact that the Malloys are anxious about what may happen.
Or here’s another, from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”: “At the tea stall Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet.” In this poetic and economical opening, the effective verb is “bickered.” We are instantly drawn into Mr. and Mrs. Das’s frustrations with each other. And then the content of their bickering — who should take their small daughter to the bathroom — reveals a great deal about their characters.
In each of these first lines, the verbs bring up intriguing questions for the reader to answer. Why does the breathing quicken? Why are Mr. and Mrs. Das bickering?
There is, of course, enormous value in the correct adjective, the thoughtful description. We need to give our characters places to move through, we need to see the “stickiness” of our characters and their world — and there is emotion in the correct adjective and description as well. But we also need to trust the emotional power of verbs. They will not just move a story forward, but the correct action will deepen a character with the same beauty as a description. Poetry is, in fact, motion.
Karen E. Bender is the author of the novels “Like Normal People” and “A Town of Empty Rooms”; her story collection, “Refund,” is forthcoming. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Narrative, and has been reprinted in “Best American Short Stories” and “Best American Mystery Stories.”