You can verb a noun, but can you noun a verb? Can you adverb a verb? What about verbing an adjective? These are the questions we’re investigating this week, plus everything else there is to know about verbs. Well, everything there is to know about verbs that we could fit into a half-hour spec fic podcast. We even find time for a lesson on cognitive burden!
Generously transcribed by Suzanne. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes and with me today is
Wes: Now we’ve talked about adverbs and figurative language on the podcast, but today we’re talking about the words that do, the ones that set your story in motion: verbs.
Oren: What about subtract verbs?
Wes: We’ll get to those.
Chris: Oh no.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: I thought I was done with math.
Wes: There’s all kinds of types, but we like word craft. We know it’s important. It brings worlds to life. It creates memorable characters and I think that verbs are a key part of that, but it’s not one that we talk a lot about. It’s just like, Hey, I’ll just put it in this thing that shows that there’s some action happening and move on.
And that’s generally fine, but I think the right verb in the right scene or line can go a long way toward making your story more engaging to, you know, set, maintain tone, keep things kind of fresh. So just kind of want to talk about that today. How to choose the right verbs, give them the proper power to stop, start, push, pull your plot, your character motivations, all those kinds of stuff and how they can reveal what’s happening in your world. It’s all about action today.
Chris: And I would say that in my experience, it feels like verbs of all the different types of words have perhaps the most impact because they convey action. Just choosing the right one then could have more punch than a lot of other words. And also probably because there’s a lot of opportunities to choose a better word. And so if people are doing things too much one way, that’s a good thing to focus on.
Oren: Maybe, but have you considered that instead you might both be huge nerds and that which word you choose actually doesn’t matter at all? Hot take?
Chris: [Laughter] What matters is that we write with heart, right?
Wes: I just figured whoever saw the title of this podcast knew what they were getting into.[Laughter]
Wes: Do we need to answer the question: what is a verb? Probably.
Oren: As far as I could tell my experience with verbs started in, I don’t know, fourth grade when we did those sentence diagrams and then I never thought about them again.
Wes: Oh yeah. Those are great.
Oren: Are they though? I have bad memories.
Wes: I think they’re great if you just want to make word art, if that makes sense. I don’t think they’re actually helpful for learning parts of speech. I mean, they can be, I guess, but I would never force somebody to do that, but you can make very cool looking sentences if you just like that. But I don’t know.
A verb: it carries the action of the utterance and it can be inferred or elided. It might not exist, but it kind of has to for us to convey thoughts and most statements. Even to just say that something exists, you need a verb. I guess you can just point and say “chair,” but you are eliding the verb “there is a chair” or “here is a chair,” right? The “is” is still there. Even if you’re only saying the noun.
Chris: Yes, certainly the “to be” verbs are the most subtle ones, the “was,” “had,” “is,” “are,” “were,” etc.
Wes: And those are fine. Those just show a state of being that exists in some form in time. And we have to have a verb for that, apparently.
Chris: I think they are one of the categories of verbs that you should watch out for just because there are good opportunities to replace them with stronger verbs, but all different types of verbs always have their use. Right? So sometimes the point is that something exists. That’s the point you’re trying to make. Using a “to be” verb can be the best way to do that.
Oren: Yeah. I was curious when should I go and replace, I don’t know if common is the right term, but less impressive verbs with more impressive verbs? When do I want to replace “ran” with “sprinted?” Should I always do that? Is “ran” bad because it’s more basic? Is it situational? I don’t know.
Wes: Yeah. I think how you choose the right verb is… I have a lot of questions, like a question flow that we can talk about a little bit later. But, I mean, I think first off, to get this out of the way, if you’re writing, I don’t really think you should write with a thesaurus near you. And if you’re in the flow, just go. If you can just write, just write. I don’t want to have you obsess over your verbs. Please don’t. Because finding the right verb often probably comes in revision more so than anything. It’s fine to just use the most common ones in terms of action down, if that’s helpful. There’s a lot of other hard things to think about anyway. So if you want to go “ran,” and then when you revisit that scene later, maybe “sprinted” would be better.
Chris: Depending on what kind of process you use, but certainly it’s not worth torturing yourself.
Wes: Yeah. Not at all, not at all.
Chris: You know, the other thing about thesaurus is do you actually understand all of the connotations around that word? Because if you change “sprinted” for “bounded” instead, this is one of the terms that I made fun of Eragon for using, because it has a character that’s an elf and she bounds, and that’s a term that we use for animals that have kind of a jumping motion. Right? Kind of a leaping, and so it feels like she’s a bunny rabbit.
Oren: Maybe she was doing that Teen Wolf thing where they run on all fours in an attempt to look cool. A failed attempt to look cool. But, an attempt.
Chris: Yeah, if you want to see something funny, look at some early Teen Wolf episodes where they have people just run on their arms and feet. And it’s just, oh man, it’s awkward.
Oren: Humans aren’t shaped correctly for that! You could tell me it’s magic as much as you want, it still looks very silly.
Chris: The point is I would take “run” over, for an elf, over “bounded” any day.
Wes: And that’s tough, too, especially when you get into verbs of motion, we could call them that. Chris is so right. You gotta watch the actual meaning of that verb because, if somebody really wanted to be generous, and I don’t, but for the sake of an example, saying that an elf bounds, you could say it’s an indirect metaphor talking about the graceful movement that the elf possesses similar to the creatures of the forest that bound, but not literally doing it. But that’s incredibly generous and no one thinks that.
Chris: Well, I think it’s more about the connotation, right? And if it brings to mind running animals and that’s not what you’re trying to create, it sounds funny. Another one that’s similar to this is using the word “vibrate” in place of “shiver” or “shake” for a person. Okay, yeah, technically they’re kind of doing the same thing, but the connotation is so different that we don’t want to mix those things.
Wes: I was kind of thinking about this when I was doing some prep and verbs have to be probably the trickiest ones in terms of synonyms. I’m struggling to think if there are synonyms for verbs that don’t connote something very different. It’s kind of hard to think of any.
Oren: Yeah, when I look at a thesaurus and I’m trying to find a way to replace a verb, and I typically only do this because I’ve already used that verb and I want to use something different, it never works. It’s always like, yeah, okay, so I already said the character “walked,” but I need to describe them moving again and it’s too soon to use “walk” again. So what, what’s it going to be? And I look at all of the synonyms for “walked” and none of them are right. They all have extra connotations that I don’t want.
Wes: Like what ones, like “shambled?”
Chris: Or “stroll?”
Wes: “Stroll,” right.
Chris: “Stroll” all has a very like, oh, it’s strolling!
Wes: [Sarcastically] Oh, my!
Oren: So when I look up my trustee thesaurus.com the best rated synonyms for “walk” are “hike,” “jaunt,” “parade,” “step,” “stretch,” “stroll,” and “tour.”
Wes: Oof, okay.
Oren: The only one of those that has even kind of what I would be looking for would be “step,” but that’s only you’re very close to something, if you step towards something that’s a step. That doesn’t imply that you crossed 20 feet of ground. “Stroll” is, are they very relaxed? Then “stroll” would make sense. Is this a funny story? Than “jaunt” might make sense. But those all have very specific connotations.
Chris: Yeah. I think in a lot of cases in that you would want to actually back up and just say somebody went somewhere or somebody is coming this way and not even specify that the movement is a walk, to take care of that one. Or just cutaway.
Wes: Cutaway. You’re done.
Oren: Flee the scene.
Chris: Smoke bomb. Show back up at the story after they’re done walking so you don’t have to say the word “walked” again.
Oren: Anything to avoid “made their way.” For some reason that bothers me. I don’t like it. If I find myself writing, like “the character made her way over,” it’s like, hmm, okay. I hate that. It sets me off.
Chris: Well, that one sounds kind of laborious.
Wes: It does, yeah.
Chris: And if navigating around something was a process that was actually laborious in this story I could see maybe using it.
Wes: I guess it’s just in those situations that’s a good example of should I scrutinize this verb choice for something more interesting? Do you really need to describe the action? That’s a good check, I think, for the verb is: do I need to convey that they just go somewhere or is it important to talk about how they’re going somewhere? In those cases, you could say “they found the library with ease” and you’re done.
Chris: We assume they found it by walking to it, unless this is the internet age in your story, which means…
Oren: Well, in that case, generally, I think the best course of action is to rewrite so you don’t need another verb. In most cases when you have a verb and you’re trying to avoid verb repetition, if you’re going to the thesaurus to find a replacement verb, in most cases, you’re just going to want to rewrite that so you don’t need the other verb. Because it’s pretty unlikely that there’s going to be another verb with exactly the right connotation.
Wes: Yeah, that makes sense.
Oren: They’re very context sensitive.
Wes: If you’ve established that they are walking, then you can just use more generic, “go,” “leave,” “arrive,” those kinds of things and never worry about… And I feel like those ones, they don’t feel as obviously repetitious as saying “walked,” “walked,” “walked.” It’s just a little easier to just use those ones.
Chris: So, Wes, are there any types of verbs that we should know about that hopefully don’t require math? I’m assuming the subtract verbs…
Wes: No. I like to think that subtract verbs are the ones that we just don’t say. The inferred and elided verbs are the subtract verbs.
Oren: That’s good.
Wes: Just cause that’s, I dunno, it’s more fun. There are lots of them. I don’t think it’s actually that helpful to learn all the aspects and tenses and things like that. Because that’s for learning grammar and how to teach it. I think for writing purposes, it’s more important to perhaps consider when you’re using what is called those progressive or continuous forms, because those really change things and can get annoying very quickly. If your story is talking about how Chris and Oren were walking down the street while they were eating some pizza and were looking at a building, that will really annoy everybody, if it’s used too much. But that can be useful for drawing out a process or things like that.
But in those cases, you’re using the “to be” verb with the present participles, is what it’s called. We say “to be” verb and “helper” verb or something like that. It’s okay to say two verbs. That’s fine.
Chris: And those usually have an -ing, right? So it’s a “to be” verb with an “-ing” verb added to that, as opposed to a gerund, which is without the “to be” verb and has an -ing.
Wes: Yeah, this is important. Verbs can take different weird forms. There’s your normal infinitive “be” is “to be” is an infinitive. And then if you add -ing, that is called a present participle. And that’s mostly just saying, Hey, this thing’s functioning not really as a verb, but it’s still basically a verb. But if you do what you said, a gerund [gerənd] or a gerund [ˈjerənd], I don’t know how you say it, that’s when a verb gets to be a noun and it’s very exciting. Because if you said “walking is my favorite.” Then “walking,” is the gerund and it is now a noun because it is not the verb of that sentence.
Oren: So you can noun a verb, just like you can verb a noun. That’s great.
Wes: Woo, hooray for flexibility.[Laughter]
Oren: But can you adverb a verb? Hmm? Can you turn a verb into an adverb?
Wes: “I walkily arrived.” So, yes, you can.[Laughter]
Oren: 10 out of 10. One Hugo, please.
Chris: Okay. But back to participles. Those ones, as Wes said, are interesting. I think that they are most useful for adding variety to sentences. Cause we want to vary the sentence up so we’re not just saying “she did this, she did that.” It just becomes very repetitive if we use the same sentence structure with the same type of verb all the time.
So,adding in those participles can be really useful to adding additional clauses.But they do, you know, soften the impact. It sounds less immediate if it’s an ongoing action than if it’s something that happened at a specific time.
Wes: That’s how you should feel, because we’re not talking about you completing any actions. It’s soft because it’s in process. So it could be good for a zoom in moment, bullet time or whatever, that would be appropriate language to describe that moment or focus on that. But if you’re using it all the time, then we’re just going to be like, is nothing happening because it feels like nothing’s happening? Yeah, I’m not using the right verbs. Whoops.
Chris: So if we were to say, “singing to herself, she walked to the store.” The “singing” part of that clause just feels softer, because we’re using a participle, than the “she walked to the store” part, which feels more immediate. It’s great as long as you don’t put in too many, especially if you’re trying to do something that is supposed to feel really immediate, intense, like action.
I think action sequences again, can still benefit from them because they can vary the sentence structure, but you want to use them in moderation. And it’s also good to just pay attention to which verbs you’re doing that with and do you want those clauses to feel softer?
Wes: I really like your example. I mean, those kinds of introductory clauses that use a participle like that are really just good at providing just a little bit of background context to the actual action of the sentence. It’s just like, Hey, this is kind of what’s going on while this thing happened. Really useful ways to vary up your sentence structures.
Chris: The other thing that sometimes people mess up with those is remember that they are happening throughout the entire sentence. They are not– some people can mistakenly put them in order as though they are not ongoing. For instance, opening the carton, he tasted the ice cream. Does it work? Cause one of those things has to happen before the other. So that could happen on accident.
Oren: But, excuse me, what if he is a multi-phasic alien being who can taste the ice cream with his extra dimensional antennae at the same time? What then, Chris? Checkmate.
Chris: Hello, frequent commenter.[Laughter]
Wes: But if that’s the case, I really hope that was established early.
Oren: No, it was a meta mystery.
Wes: Oh no, even worse![Laughter]
Oren: Okay, Chris. So how does this relate to sensory verbs that we talk about sometimes and I actually understand a little bit? Where you say the protagonist heard something or the protagonist saw something instead of just describing what they see or hear.
Chris: So I would call those internal actions. The point is that the verb represents action that is taking place in somebody’s mind, not anything their body is doing. The issue with those is that they add narrative distance, which, if you’re running a distant anyway, maybe you’re writing an omniscient, no problem. But if you’re going for close narration, that’s where you can tell that you’ve slipped up. The reason that it’s distant is because it’s actually telling instead of showing.
So the idea is if you’re in close narration and close perspective, you are supposed to show what is happening inside the character’s head by narrating it happening. So a common example I use is: “where does that portal lead” is showing, whereas “he wondered where the portal led” is telling.
So “wondered” in this case is an internal action. So “thought,” “realized,” “considered,” “decided,” those are all internal actions or actions that we take in our head. And sensory verbs like “he saw,” or “he heard” actually fit that, too. We’re talking about what he mentally noticed instead of things that are going on outside of him.
So the way that you would show that instead as you would just talk about it happening: “a dog barked,” instead of “he heard a dog bark.”
Oren: Is this a situation where one is always superior to the other or is it it depends on when you should use one or the other.
Chris: Well, again, it’s about how much distance you’re trying to put in your narration. I think in most cases, people should be moving closer and actively are more distant than they want. But it’s not like you should never be distant. There are reasons to be distant: if you’re doing omniscient, et cetera.
Also, there are some times when it’s just really hard to word things in showing, especially with smells are the hardest, because you have to say that something is a smell, because smells are named after actual objects, right? So you don’t have to smell a rose.
But there’s other words you can use, like fragrance, but that one gets a little hard. So there were some situations in which clarity, et cetera. So I wouldn’t say never, ever, paying attention to internal actions, or if you have a tendency to be a little too distant, you know, you can search the document for them and just look at it and decide whether that should really be there or whether you can replace it by just making it happen in the narration. Instead of saying that your character came to a conclusion, for instance.
Oren: Then we can invent smell-o-vision and then we will have conquered the problem of describing smells. Put them right in the book.
Chris: Wes, do you have any commentary on that?
Wes: Now I’m just thinking about smell. I mean, how else do you say that?
Chris: Smell is the weirdest sense for writing and it’s very weird.
Wes: You very much have to indicate that it’s happening to your sniffer. Even if you say like, the flowers assaulted, offended.
Chris: You have to say scent or fragrance.
Wes: Yeah, or even your senses, doesn’t directly state your nose. Oof, that’s a rough one.
Oren: Yeah. I always end up saying things like, the scent of burning wood wafted into his nose or some things like that. That’s always how I ended up writing. I use “wafted” a lot. “Wafted” does a lot of work.
Wes: It’s good though. Then they’re being careful and they’re not inhaling something too deadly.
Oren: Yeah, that’s true. Just taking a big old gulp of it.
Chris: Right. You could say “the room was filled with the scent of cinnamon.” That’s the using a “to be” verb, which is less active than saying “the scent of cinnamon wafted up.” But yeah, it’s a little hard to narrate smells.
Oren: All right, another question for the panel. How many verbs should a sentence have, the perfect number of verbs, if you will? So should I say “I ran down the street and shouted at passers by,” or should I say “I ran down the street. Period. Then I shouted at passers by.” There’s only one correct answer and you guys need to find it.
Wes: As many verbs as it needs.
Oren: Ah, no, I was afraid of that.
Chris: Here’s a question: does the phrase like “was singing” count as one verb or two?
Wes: I would count that as one. I mean, if you have compound sentences, you’re going to have more than one verb. So you’re probably going to have those.
Chris: I mean, at least one per independent clause.
Wes: Yeah. I mean, for the clause to be independent, it needs a verb.
Chris: It needs a verb. So at least one per independent clause, sometimes one for dependent clauses.
Wes: Only in participle forms, though.
Oren: [Sarcastically] So if I’m writing a revolutionary story where someone is trying to break away from a larger country, I need more verbs for my independence. I get it. Okay. Got it. Sorted that out.
Chris: Does a participle form always have an -ing?
Wes: Uh, no past participles like “spoken” is it past participle form.
Chris: Yeah. Okay. It’s going to be cause Wes said a dependent clause needs a participle.
Wes: I mean, usually they do, unless your clauses are really fragments. And then I guess you’re just doing whatever you want.
Chris: At that point all the rules are out the window.
Wes: All the rules out.
Oren: So you guys definitely already covered this, but this just slides off my brain like water. So in a sentence like, “I am running.” Is “am” the verb there?
Wes: Yes, technically. Yes, that is the verb.
Chris: “Am running,” Wes said, would be one verb. Because together those two words perform the function of a verb in the sentence.
Wes: That’s exactly right. Yes. They’re performing the function. That’s the best way you can say that. And it’s the least confusing.
Oren: Similar to, but legally distinct from, a verb.
Chris: Both “am” and “running” are verbs, but they are working as a unit in that sentence.
Wes: Yeah. They are buddies.
Chris: Maybe they’re having a buddy cop arc.[Laughter]
They have to learn to get along. It’s canon.
So I thought it’d be good to bring up some examples of verbs in description, because I think it’s really easy to think of description as being about the adjectives and nouns and neglect the verbs. And leave the verbs just kind of feeling lackluster. But I think description is best when it feels alive and active. And a lot of times using the verb and putting it in the verb really brings it to life. So for example, instead of “the gem was sparkly” or “the sparkly gem,” you can say “the gem sparkled.”
Oren: When you say those words, when you say “the gem was sparkly,” I kind of imagine a freeze frame of a gem with some light glinting off of it. But when you say “the gem sparkled,” it feels like a little video in my mind, like a little GIF of a gem.
Wes: Yeah. I would use “the gem was sparkly” and “the gem sparkled” for two different things. If I were using it. They convey very different things about what is going on with that gem.
Chris: I think it’s good for description to be compact. Right? If you have lots of description, people get bored. Some people like more description than others. But if you pack the most information in the shortest amount, you can create more vivid pictures and not take up so much time. And so using your verb effectively would be a way to do that. But if you say “the sparkly gem,” then you can use a different verb and say “the sparkly gem shown” or “the sparkly gem sank in the water,” or whatever it is you want. So there are some cases when that might be a better choice.
Wes: Definitely. I will say “the gem sparkled,” if you’re going to take attributes like being sparkly and verbify them like that, it’s great. I love concision. But, the more active your verbs are, that’s putting more of a cognitive burden on people while they’re reading or even listening because it’s action, action, action. And sometimes if you are describing something that is just scene setting, please just embrace softer verbs, easier verbs, because I will appreciate it personally.
Chris: Do you have an example?
Wes: Well, one thing really about cognitive burden, when we assign verbs in, I’ll just call them action verbs, active verbs, here instead of passive is largely what I’m using that in opposition to, when you say “the gem sparkled” and you’re describing the scene, and if you’re focusing on other things in the room as well, then you might be inclined to say “the gem sparkled, the mirror shown, the furnace howled”, and you are constantly changing subject when all you’re doing is describing a room. That juggle of subject verb, subject verb, subject verb can be tiresome because the beauty of passive voice, for example, is to say, we have the same subject, maybe the room, and then we can say, “the room was filled with sparkly gems, a roaring furnace, and,” uh, what else did I say? Something cool. It was cozy and it’s still the room and you don’t have to worry about me changing a subject up on you for the sake of adding a more impactful verb. I just want to tell you about the room, guy. Calm down.
Chris: I mean, those are some very short clauses with lots of verbs per number of words. And the rhythm is very choppy there. So I can imagine that if you did that, if you listed an action that everything in the scene is taking, that would definitely raise the cognitive burden pretty quickly.
Wes: It can. And in the case of— whenever you have a thing do something, I feel this way, so you are welcome to say, shut your mouth, Wes. When you, when you say “the gem was sparkly,” I’m just going to assume, cool, it’s sparkly. When you say “the gem sparkled” and this is spec fic, I’m going to think, is it magic? Did it do that just now? You know, I have more questions about this. Like, can it conjure sparkles? I must know.
Chris: That sometimes depends on the context of the story and where in the story it is. Certainly there’s more issues with that early in the story, when we’re still figuring out what’s going on with the world, then there would be later. But I think that the gem was sparkly. I think that using a, to be verb there is sort of wasting an opportunity a little bit. For instance, saying “the car shown red,” I think you’re just having a more flavorful verb and yeah, the meaning there was a little bit different.
Wes: Yeah. It can be.
Chris: It can be. But I just think that it’s a little bit more poetic and it comes off a little stronger. I wouldn’t want to, as you said, pack tons of verbs, every other word should not be a verb. It’s almost like the verb, is in some cases, the most emphasized word in the sentence.
Wes: If we’re back to describing that room and where there’s just generic things that maybe they are inviting and shiny, but then if you like land on “then there was a gem and the gem sparkled,” suddenly it’s like, okay, that really stands out when the rest is backdrop now. I’m telling you what I’m focusing on. So fellow D&D party members, please focus on that gem and nothing else in the room. Cause I didn’t prep for that.
Chris: Right, but that’s what also strikes me about your example of “the gem sparkled, the furnace roared, the mirror shown” and packing that altogether is because those verbs have so much emphasis, it feels like that’s part of the issue here, is that we’re trying to emphasize everything.
Chris: And we can’t, we got to prioritize.
Wes: Okay. We are basically out of time. So, there’s a lot more that we could say, but just know that if you want to use common verbs, that’s okay. Do that. We get tired of looking for different ones. We can get tired of being ultra picky. We don’t want to be accused of being pretentious and sometimes we just don’t want to be pretentious. So just know that when you’re writing, verbs really bring a lot of power. Subtle changes can dramatically reinvent a scene, whether you’re trying to focus on more concise forms like we were talking about with gems sparkle and more passive forms as well. And Chris’ section on distance is something that you really want to keep in mind as well.
Oren: All right. That’s a great place to end the podcast. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson. She’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening/closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.
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