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Trust Your Nouns and Verbs

photo adapted / Horia Varlan
photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Therese butting in for a second to officially welcome Kathryn Craft to Writer Unboxed as a regular contributor. Kathryn has mad skills, which she’s shared with us as a guest of WU [1], and I couldn’t be happier that she’ll bring them to us now through her new column, Mad Skills. Welcome, Kathryn!

Most experienced writers know the syndrome: once you are a student of craft, it gets harder and harder to lose yourself in the work you read. Since being an editor of any sort exacerbates the problem, people sometimes ask if I can switch off my inner prose analyst long enough to suspend belief and get swept away.

The answer is yes, I can, but it takes some mad authorial skills. Passages from works that exemplify these skills will become the grist for this new Writer Unboxed column in the hope that we can all benefit from studying them.

It’s January 1, though, and you may be hung over, so I’m going to keep this first installment simple.

Trust your nouns and verbs.

Wait—can this really count as a mad skill? It’s grammar school stuff. My first grade reader, Tip and Mitten by Paul McKee, detailed the hijinks of a little terrier and a black kitten in such language:

My ball is not in the box.

Here is a little can.

My ball may be in it.

I have to find my ball.

Set aside for a moment the repetition needed to help children translate written shapes into the sounds of language. A story is developing here—by god, people, a ball is missing and the search is on! Okay, a publisher of adult stories would want you to raise the stakes, but if you think no one cares about this little drama, you’re wrong—two copies of the first 1949 edition of Tip and Mitten are available on Amazon for $80.00 a piece. Many of us are nostalgic about the words that first made us fall in love with reading.

How can nostalgia help me now?

The more you study novel writing the more overwhelmingly complex it can seem. But when you strip a story to its essence, you’ll find nouns and verbs fueling it: Something (noun) happens to (verb) a character (noun) that threatens (verb) her world (noun), so she sets (verb) a goal. A whole lotta nouns and verbs set up complications, which her backstory motivation (noun) and desire (noun) inspire her to surmount (verb). This is the cause and effect language characteristic of active voice, and it will keep your story moving forward.

Let’s take a look at an example from Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman. After a short opening from the protagonist’s perspective as a child, the second chapter opens the current story action in her adult point of view:

When all else fails I go to Erik. Tonight, all else has failed.

He answers the door, eyes bloodshot, unsurprised. And then the hitch in my breathing that comes, that always comes with Erik.

“Can’t sleep?” he says.

“No.”

He steps aside to let me in, shuts the door behind me, slides the bolts, and chains the locks.

This spare prose is not all that different from Tip and Mitten: “My ball is not in the box”/”When all else fails I go to Erik.” But oh, the layers of meaning hidden here. 

Note that in this opening passage Younge-Ullman limits herself to two adjectives. Her character is preoccupied and on a mission; further description would dilute the story and allow it to drift.

If we learned in the above passage that Erik has red hair, would we readers think, Oh man, I have to keep reading because why oh why does he have red hair? No. We read to find out why his eyes are bloodshot and unsurprised. Why he slides the bolts and chains the locks. Why she can’t sleep. We want to know why all else has failed for the protagonist, and why her breathing always hitches with Erik. Every single inclusion here raises a question that sets the hook deeper.

This short chapter ends:

I know the way to the bedroom. I know his mouth will taste like Scotch. I walk ahead and listen for his footsteps behind me. Just inside the door his arms wrap around my waist. He swivels me around and pulls me closer. I let him.

I come here because I know Erik will drag me to the edge. He will drag me there, push me over, and then leap after me, to a place beyond pain, beyond loss, beyond the things that haunt us in the empty spaces of the night.

When all else fails, I have this.

Wow. This spare voice might be nothing like yours, and it may not make sense for your type of story, but there is craft here we can emulate.

No doubt, as a writer, you’ve known since Tip and Mitten how to choose nouns and verbs.

Trusting them to drive your reader straight into the story is a mad skill.

Have you ever admired the way an author relied upon nouns and verbs to dive right into story? Any examples you’d like to share, from either adult works or early readers (don’t be shy if it’s your own)? As writers, how do we sometimes get in our own way as concerns getting the story moving on page one?

About Kathryn Craft [2]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [3] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.