From Memories to Memoirs Part 5 — Strong Verbs

by Amber Lea Starfire on August 10, 2014

Action!

You have been working on ways to remember and write your life story vividly, with concrete and sensory details that draw your reader into the world of your story. Now, consider how the verbs you choose effect tone and pace.

In the midst of a story, when you describe a static object, you are in effect slowing or freezing time. When your character, Jane, stops to gaze longingly at the red shoes in the store window, your readers stop with Jane, seeing the shoes through her eyes. And while the shop and the window and the shoes are being described, nothing is going on but the looking and the wanting. Soon, Jane comes to a decision and walks through the door into the store; or she shuffles away, shoulders slumped; or she concocts a way to have them and calls her best friend to share the news. In any event, the action begins again and, with the action, description of the action.

Use Strong Verbs for Action

The verbs you use contribute to (or do nothing for) your story’s pace and tone. Consider the differences in tone and pace in the following sentences:

Jim walks along Main Street.
Jim strides along Main Street.
Jim ambles along Main Street.
Jim sashays along Main Street.
Jim patrols along Main Street.
 
In each sentence, Jim is moving along Main Street, but the verb used describes how he moves. It contributes to Jim’s character (how he moves says something about him) and pace. To amble is slower than to stride, and to patrol has a completely different attitude than to sashay.
 
Rule of thumb: if you find yourself using an adverb to modify a verb, you need to find a different, more effective verb for your character and story. For example, if you wrote, “Jim walked briskly along Main Street,” strode or marched or stomped might serve you better. The point is, use a verb that adds something — a feeling or an attitude and describes how the action is accomplished.
 

Never use a “vanilla” verb, such as walk or look, when another verb, such as ambled or stared would be more effective.

Use Strong Verbs in Description

It’s important to remember that description of an inanimate object does not need to be inanimate. The description can be full of life and have movement of its own. Strong verbs and precise adjectives act together to move your story forward in some way. 

The two following example passages slow the pace of their respective stories by describing moments in time, yet the descriptions themselves do not feel slow.

In her memoir, Sixtyfive Roses, Heather Summerhays Cariou writes about her experience with “primal therapy” in the office of her counselor.

So it was that I found myself shivering on the thinly carpeted floor in Ron’s tiny concrete office, my head filled with a white wind, an icy white wind that was whirling all through me, as if my body was a wide-open space. 

There is no action in Cariou’s sentence. In fact, it’s rather passive: Heather lies on the floor and everything happens to her. But the verbs are strong — shivering, filled, whirling. Cariou uses the image of icy white wind to represent the coldness of her emotion and wide-open space to represent her body. A combination of strong verbs and figurative language (which we’ll discuss more in Part 6) gives movement to the description.

Here’s a partial description of a road — Grand Avenue — as remembered from Bill Bryson’s childhood in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. (The full description covers about a page and half.)

But when the road was being laid out sometime in the second half of the 1800s there was a heavy rain in the night and apparently the surveyors’ sticks moved — at least that was what we were always told — and the road deviated from the correct line, leaving the capitol oddly off center; so that it looks as if it has been caught in the act of trying to escape. It is a peculiarity that some people treasure and others would rather not talk about. I for one never tired of striding into the downtown from the west and being confronted with a view so gloriously not right, so cherishably out of kilter, and pondering the fact that whole teams of men could build an important road without once evidently looking up to see where they were going.

Think about how much is packed into the previous paragraph: There is no real action to speak of, yet his inanimate road deviatesleaves a capitol off center, and is caught in the act of trying to escape; the adverbs Bryson chose add an element of surprise: a view that is “gloriously not right, so cherishably out of kilter; we learn that the road was laid out in the second half of the 1800’s and is not straight due to a rainstorm (or so the rumor goes); and we understand, due to the author’s precise use of modifiers and adjectives, how he feels about the road.

Your Turn

Write a 250-500 word description of a person engaged in an activity that has discrete steps (washing a car, gardening, playing hopscotch, lifting weights). You’ll need to organize the flow of action as it occurs. 

Now, examine your use of verbs and rewrite your piece in 3 different ways, substituting different verbs for each action or active description to create different tones and slow down or increase the pace of the action. 

Share your experience: What did you learn by playing with this exercise? How will what you learned affect your writing and revising?

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“Strong Verbs” is the fifth in a series on turning memories into memoirs (and memoir-related essays). Click here to read Part 1 — What is Memoir?Part 2 — Mapping Your Story,  Part 3 — Remembering Vividly, and Part 4 — A Descriptive Vocabulary.

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