Dragging Action in Fiction. “Verbing” a Noun
In our previous two posts in this series on dragging action in fiction, we’ve already talked about getting rid of “to be” and “ing” verbs and avoiding passive verbs. Now let’s discover a final way to write more lively action into your story.
For writers, producing a story with dragging action is the kiss of death. Readers want stories that feel lively and active and don’t put them to sleep. We’ve already looked at a couple of ways of writing that can slow the action down — 1) using “to be” verbs with “ing” verbs or 2) using passive verbs. But one of my favourite ways of jazzing up the action is a bit controversial: changing a noun into a verb.
Back in the Good Old Days, as some people complain, a noun stayed a noun and knew its place. You got a gift from somebody, but you didn’t gift them something. You were somebody’s friend, but you didn’t friend anybody. And when a baby was born, you just became a parent — you didn’t parent the child.
Well, times change. And so does language. And sometimes, turning a noun into a verb — or as it is called, “verbing a noun” — is the best thing you can do to make that dragging action pick right up.
Why Does it Drag?
Have a look at this sentence: “There was a jagged crack resembling a snake cutting across the wall.”
The sentence wants to be very active, but it is not an example of lively writing. If you’ve read our previous two posts, one thing stands out right away. This sentence starts with a “to be” phrase (in this case — “There was”). It’s followed a bit later by another telltale word, “cutting,” one of the draggy “ing” verbs. What’s more, the subject of the sentence is the fifth word in the sentence. And by the time you fiiiiiinally get to the action, “cutting”, you’re on the ninth word. The verb itself clearly wants to be active, but it’s got that “ing” form, so that’s one strike against it. And it’s surrounded by so much drag that the active cut it’s trying to make gets muted. A similar muting happens with the adjective “jagged,” despite its attempt to help the crack seem dramatic.
So. What if we try the same thing we did earlier, with the glass sitting on the table? Find the subject and verb (crack and cut) and try to make things more lively: “A jagged crack resembling a snake cut across the wall.” That’s somewhat better, but it still takes seven words to get to the action. The sentence spends so much time giving out information about the crack that we might not even care what the crack actually does once we reach the action word.
What happens now? The writing seems to drag no matter what we do. Is our sentence doomed to suffer dragging action, even though it’s gamely trying to be more active?
Read on and have hope! We really do have a way to overcome this draggy writing habit.
Snake That Thing!
Let’s try something new, a touch of the forbidden — let’s verb the noun and see what happens. Here’s a new version of the sentence: “A jagged crack snaked across the wall.”
Now, that is lively writing. That is action! Subject-verb: “Crack snaked!” You can almost hear the loud snap as that thing whips across the wall.
First, we got rid of the draggy “There was.” Now the word “jagged” can do its job and add more vividness to the crack. And the verb now comes right after it, so swiftly and strongly that it almost gives you whiplash — that crack just snaked! We could even do away with “jagged,” if we needed to cut words, because “snaked” already suggests the dramatic back-and-forth line of the crack. But I like the effect of the word myself, so let’s keep it.
What we did here was take an ordinary noun and use it as a verb, an action word, to create a great physical description and some pretty dramatic action. Does it matter that we got rid of the original verb, “cutting?” We didn’t really need it, because we already know that a crack cuts into the wall — that’s the nature of a crack. And the word “snaked” projects the action beautifully.
However, we need one caution here. This “verbing” will not work effectively with every noun, so you will usually need to write a trial sentence to check whether your chosen noun can be verbed this way. Verbing works with snake, because that word already has both verb and noun definitions. Other dual-definition words can also help liven things up (e.g., “They ran across the yard in a race for the door” becomes “They raced each other to the door.”). But many words that name people don’t work well if you try to verb them. It sounds awkward to say that somebody personned someone, or a parent sonned a child. Yet you can say “He fathered two children” or “She captained the ship” or “They policed the area.” So you need to be especially careful with “people” words, and you should do a private trial run with other nouns, just to be sure you can use them like this.
You will also want to consider who your readers are. People often accept nouns that became verbs a long time ago (e.g., “contact”), while they reject nouns that are still becoming verbs today (e.g., “gift” or “parent”). So be judicious when verbing nouns. Do it sparingly, and do it only when it will really bring the action to life.
Summary: Eliminate the Dragging Action
Over the past three posts, we’ve looked at a few ways to make our writing more vivid and less “draggy.”
- Cut introductory “to be” phrases from the beginnings of sentences.
- Reduce the use of “ing” verbs.
- Use active verbs instead of passive verbs when you can.
- “Verb” some nouns to make the action more lively.
If you worry that the action in your story sounds slow or draggy even when it’s supposed to be lively and swift-moving, make some of these small changes to your action sentences. You might be surprised at how vivid and animated they suddenly become.