A writer I know once made the interesting proposition that nouns make for more powerful imagery than the oft-touted verbs. He cited as examples some of the most vivid nouns from the first page of one of his stories and then compared them to the most vivid verbs from the same page. I'll do the same with one of my stories. In an attempt to be objective, I chose a story at random and took what I thought were the best five nouns and verbs from the first couple paragraphs.

Verbs: Stood, swelling, argue, kissed, flies

Nouns: Airlock, belly, mom, ship, bugs, boneyard

To a degree, the writer who made this comment is correct, but I wondered why. One main reason is pretty obvious: verbs alone don't provide much of an image: swelling... swelling what? It's vague. Stood. Okay, someone's standing. So what? You can picture it, but it's not an especially vivid image.

Nouns, on the other hand, are automatically a bit more concrete. They're things, after all. "Belly" is a fairly strong image, although you might ask, "What kind of belly?" I can picture a ship and bugs pretty clearly (but again-what kind of ship? What kind of bugs?) And if you know what a boneyard is (a graveyard for naval vessels), that's a strong image, too.


Why view either of them in isolation? It's good to keep in mind that a vivid noun is at least as important as a vivid verb, but it's the results that count, and the results in this case are the image that your words create in the reader's mind. To create images with the most impact, you need an optimum combination of nouns and verbs. For example, I said that "swelling" was rather vague. But perhaps you've guessed the verb-noun combination in my story. It was a swelling belly. The swelling belly of a pregnant woman. Now you're getting a powerful image. Now you're picturing something clearly in you're mind--I'm fairly confident of that, unless you're reading mindlessly. The telepathy is working. It's magic. My brain sent a message to yours.

The point, I think, of the common emphasis put on verbs is that excessive adverbs and adjectives can clutter and obscure an otherwise powerful image. Example:

The sword glistened with blood.

That's a nice, clean noun-verb-noun combo--good nouns and verbs. Now, here's a cluttered counter-example:

The huge, silvery sword glistened wetly with bright red blood.

The excess verbiage hinders more than it helps. For me, and I think for most readers, the first example is better. Despite this, novice writers tend to stray toward the second example, perhaps in an attempt to have "good description".

So, let's not limit ourselves to focusing on verbs alone or nouns alone. Let's focus on creating powerful images, which often but not always comes down to short phrases dense with nouns and verbs and with context. Here's an example of building up a noun into a powerful image.

Noun: The Pope.

Verb: Pee.

A fairly vivid noun and a fairly vivid verb, in the sense that they fairly swiftly cause an image to form in your mind. But let's put them together.

Verb + Noun: The Pope peed.

Now that's a image. It's not often you picture the Pope peeing. But I still don't consider it a high-powered image. It's not solid enough for me yet.

Verb + Noun with Context: The Pope peed in the woods.

Now it's getting interesting. I see him standing there in front of a tree... But let's drive this nail home. You can reach a point with an image where it feels like a complete package, and I think you'll recognize what I mean by that when you see it. We need a little more context: a little more action, and the sense of something going on...

Full-blown Image: The Pope stood in the woods with his pants around his ankles, head swiveling in search of onlookers, before he finally peed into the underbrush.

A Word of Warning: As I went back over this lesson, I thought of one further difficulty with focussing on nouns alone. A writing friend brought it up: based on our discussion about improving nouns, he tried to amp up the nouns in something he'd written, but he found the task very difficult. On the other hand, amping up your verbs is considerably easier. I think I know why. You can replace "she went quickly" with "she sprinted" in virtually any story. But you can't replace "the man" with "the Pope". The Pope would take over the story, change it into something else entirely. Sure, it would be more fun if the getaway car is an ambulance or a U-Haul truck, but that might not fit the story, either, whereas the truck going around the bend can easily be changed to screeching around the bend. So be careful. Don't drive yourself crazy trying to change nouns in something you've already written--just consider it. And the next time you start a new project, consider infusing a few good nouns from the get-go. But in the meantime, work on those verbs!

BOTTOM LINE: Don't lose sight of the corn cob for the kernels. Create complete, powerful images, not zippy but isolated nouns and verbs.

NEXT: Give purpose and meaning to your characters' motivations.

Lessons List * 1* 2* 3* 4* 5* 6* 7* 8* 9* 10* 11* 12

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