Finding Powerful Actions

Action.


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That’s what gets an audience’s attention. It’s why we are engaged and why we are interested. Activity is what makes us want to me more involved in the characters, plot, setting and situation.

Without action, you have very little with which to engage your audience.

So how do we write with better action?

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My students struggle with this every year and so we have a talk about verbs. There are occasion verbs and being verbs and helping verbs—you know those auxiliary verbs. But those are kind of boring verbs. They do a lot of telling. No one wants to be told what to do. For teenagers, this statement really hits home; they are, after all the kings and queens of rebellion, are they not?

So, I tell them, we want to use POWERFUL verbs. And powerful verbs show rather than tell.

But again, telling them this is not nearly as effective as showing, so it then becomes example time.


THE MAN IS A MONSTER.


Is this showing or telling?

It’s telling—sure, you’ve told me the man is a monster but you have really limited what I know about him. I have no information about him other than ‘monster’. Do you mean literally? Figuratively? What has he done to make himself a monster? Is he an evil monster? A good monster? How do you define monster? You have really done nothing more than given a description and required too much work of your reader.

So, instead—show your audience and let them draw conclusions.


THE MAN RIPPED OFF THE SHEEP’S HEAD AND ATE THE EYEBALLS WITH A SICKENING SQUISHY CRUNCH.


Okay, now we’re talking. I still understand  that the guy is pretty monstrous, but now I am able to infer much more about him based on the action! You have told me 3x as much about the man and you didn’t have to do much more than change the wording to an action filled sentence.

BUT it did have to change.

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And that’s hard. Changing our writing habits is never easy. We fall into patterns and part of this makes up our own unique voice, but at the same time we have to be willing to change and adapt our work in order for it to reach its optimal potential.

So I start looking at my own work.

How often do I use powerful verbs?  This often makes me think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Mr. Keating is teaching his students the power of words. He tells them to“ avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.” When you search for the write words, you are able to create something magnificent, which is why one of the next scenes in the movie between Keating and Todd is so powerful:

John Keating: Close your eyes, close your eyes! Close ’em! Now, describe what you see.

Todd Anderson: Uh, I-I close my eyes.

John Keating: Yes.

Todd Anderson: Uh, and this image floats beside me.

John Keating: A sweaty-toothed madman.

Todd Anderson: A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.

John Keating: Oh, that’s *excellent*! Now, give him action – make him do something!

Todd Anderson: H-His hands reach out and choke me.

John Keating: That’s it! Wonderful, wonderful!

Todd Anderson: And all the time he’s mumbling.

John Keating: What’s he mumbling?

Todd Anderson: Mumbling truth.

John Keating: Yeah, yes.

Todd Anderson: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.

John Keating: [some of the class start to laugh] Forget them, forget them! Stay with the blanket. Tell me about that blanket!

Todd Anderson: Y-Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

[long pause then class applauds]

John Keating: Don’t you forget this.

I get chills every time I watch and think about this moment of recognition, of learning, of embracing language as a way to communicate on multiple levels. Because that’s what the goal of a writer is. To communicate.

Action.

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