Actions and Verbs

A character in a story does things in order to get, do, or become something. Actions require verbs, and these verbs need to both characterise the do-er, and show the action taken to achieve a goal.

This is a focus on how verbs characterise the players in the story. What am I talking about?

Well, you know how characters get a list of things they are, usually descriptive, sometimes prescriptive? It shows hair colour, history, family connections, favourite and hated things. These little elements can be used to create a picture, and some of them will also show the changes that occur to the character, and to their world, as they traverse the hills and gullies of the story.

But there are also actions that show the change. How they act in the beginning will show – clearly – how they’re working with what they have, what they are, where they’ve been, up until this moment in the story.

A fearful character may shy away from an action – which is an action in itself. By the time they get to the end of the story, their actions will demonstrate how they’ve grown and changed.

Let me show you a few.

Verb/s

Escape:
Avoid, bypass, depart, desert, detour, disentangle, emancipate, evacuate, extricate, evade, flee, fly, foil, leave, liberate, outrun, quit, release, rescue, skip, slip, unbind, uncage, unchain, unfetter, deflect, elude, shirk, shun, extract, withdraw.
Opp: abide, brave, capture, chase, endure, face, follow, hunt, retain, seek, target, track, invite, pursue, solicit, welcome, contract.

The above verbs show actions that apply to a main character in a story. She starts out looking to escape, to avoid trouble, to evade and flee. Those actions apply to her early actions in the story.

Later, though, as she changes, whether forced or through growth, she becomes more of the opposite verbs. She learns to chase, to endure, to hunt and seek. She becomes brave for a purpose, to seek and pursue in an effort to achieve a necessary state of change.

That makes verbs extremely useful, more useful that descriptive words, stronger than events and foils and mirrors – because without an action undertaken, there is nothing to see, nothing to show the changes.

Character verbs when profiling the character for the story are more important to me that descriptors.

Or, (and I do this more often than not) the above verbs can show how MC starts in the story using one of the weaker forms of the verb family for escape: flee/evade. She wants to avoid it, escape from the trouble without confronting it, and the first attempt at changing the circumstances is to get the hell out of town.

The next stage of the story needs a double-whammy verb action (the second act has two parts, so stronger and stronger still), such as: elude/pursue (see the balance of escape to its opposite? The hunted becomes the hunter), and moving onto final stage, the last fight against the danger, is the strongest: capture/retain (the only way to win through is to take what’s been learned and apply it to the situation, because only one can get/do/become enough to see it through).

Is there a pattern to this? Yes, it’s the try/fail cycle (the tri-fail cycle, if you like, ‘cos there are three of ’em) and how the character acts (does stuff) to overcome the problems. The first attempt is using what they already know, how they respond automatically. The second try/fail is more determined, but starts with trying a stronger form of the known, and moving onto the opposite side of the scales, making the change from the running/hiding/getting away to an attitude of pursue/chase/capture, and ending with the change in both attitude and action. Becoming positive, but still using the same verb family.

Well, I think it makes sense because it answers the questions:

‘What do I have to do to make this right?’ which is related to the story question in the opening, the change event that throws their life into chaos – because the story starts when the main character’s self-concept is threatened, and is part of the ‘who do I have to become to make this right?’

What do your characters do in order to get, do, become, and how do you demonstrate the changes through the way they do things in the beginning of the story, in the middle, and at the end?

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7 thoughts on “Actions and Verbs

  1. It’s funny but the use of certain verbs gives an immediate indication to me of the quality of the story I am reading. The particular verb I’m thinking of is “said”. “Went” is another.
    All “said” reeally means is someone opened their mouth and a sound came out. How bland is that? If you think about it, there are a million other words that can convey so much more meaning. Did they exclaim? cry? whisper? warn, maybe? apologise? All of which tell a reader a whole lot more than just “said”.
    Incidentally I use MS Word and have set it up so that it treats “said” as a spelling mistake. The word never appears in any of my stories, unless perhaps it is spoken by a character.

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    • For me, it’s the quality of the words spoken, rather than being told how they were spoken. I do use other words to indicate when it’s not a matter of simply ‘said’, like whispered, for example, depending on the circumstances.
      I don’t treat ‘said’ as an enemy, though, as long as it’s not overdone. Like everything else, what matters is the story, how it flows, what it shows, the emotional join of words and reader. Or something like that.

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