Flashback to the second grade. You’re learning about the parts of a sentence. How does the teacher define ‘verbs’? Why, they’re action words, of course! And that’s actually a pretty good description. The verb makes the subject of the sentence do something. When “the cat jumps”, ‘jump’ is your verb.
So without verbs, nothing can happen. There’s no movement, motion, or story.
Choosing the wrong verbs leads to bland, repetitive, confusing action and passive voice, but choosing the right verbs makes for fast-paced, concrete, active prose.
To be, or not to be
Many new authors find themselves automatically writing in the passive voice. One reason for this is how often we use the verb ‘to be’ when we speak. “I am...” “She is...” It was...” etc.
We’ll talk more about active and passive voice in the article “Show vs. Tell: Active vs. Passive”, but for now, I want to point out that the best way to stop yourself from over-using passive voice is to think about your verb choices.
“I was infuriated by the sight of all that bloodshed!”
In this sentence, your verb is ‘was’, a version of ‘to be’. In other words, the action of the sentence is contained in one of the most boring words in English. But swap things around to make the sentence active, and…
“The sight of all that bloodshed infuriated me!”
Now, not only do you have a prettier, more active sentence, but the action word in your sentence has become ‘infuriated’, which—and I’m being totally objective here—is way more awesome than ‘was’.
Making these changes can also lead to more showing and less telling. As an example, let’s see how simply replacing ‘to be’ with a different verb can bring the reader more firmly into the story through a character’s experience.
Ling was happy.
There’s nothing wrong with the first version of the sentence, but if you want active prose and the reader to really experience the story through the POV character, then go with ‘smiled’ as your verb.
When we see something we like, we don’t think, “Boy, oh boy! I sure am happy now.” What do we do? We smile. 🙂
Maybe you’ve heard jokes about new authors and their ‘said-isms’ before. Basically, some people fear that using ‘she said/he asked/they shouted’ too often looks amateurish, so they insist on finding other words to plug into their place. The end result is a manuscript bursting with characters hollering, gasping, exclaiming, pontificating, enquiring, and ejaculating all over the place!
But ‘to say’ is a perfectly fine verb, and repeatedly jumping to the thesaurus for said-isms comes across as distracting and silly to most readers. Usually you’re best off just saying ‘said.’
What about with other verbs? Can characters just ‘walk’ from place to place, or should you always try and find a better, more descriptive verb? Amble, hobble, parade, strut, trudge, wander, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with writing “Ling walked out of the house” if that’s what he did. The real problem is when ‘walk’ isn’t actually all he is doing. If instead your sentence is, “Ling walked determinedly out of the house”, then you’ve got a problem, because you’re not picking a specific-enough verb to describe what’s happening.
We’ll talk more about adverbs in a minute, but for now, let’s touch on how precision-picking your verbs can lead to better POV and character development.
As an exercise, imagine a character on their lunch break. They sit on a park bench, pull out their sandwich, and eat while watching people pass by.
If you’re using a first person or third person limited POV, the reader should be firmly in the head of the character on the bench, so what are the best verbs you could use to describe the surrounding action?
Maybe your character is a zoologist. Maybe they watch the particular gaits of passers-by. In that case, they might notice a large policeman waddle past, a pair of skinny teens flying by on skateboards, or a field trip of eight-year-olds stampeding through the grass. ‘Waddle’, ‘fly’, and ‘stampede’ are all verbs which not only paint the scene in a special way, they further develop the zoologist character and our place in their POV.
How would the verbs in the description change if the POV character was a detective? What if they lived with a particular disability? What if they were very old or very young? What if they were a dog?
Adverbs: Heroic descriptors or scourge of the Earth?
Some authors, editors, readers, reviewers, and teachers don’t just dislike adverbs, they hate them. They really, positively, absolutely, genuinely, legitimately, categorically, truly loathe them. (That sentence was obviously for those people. Guess I should have included an adverb trigger warning. My bad.)
Can you ever use adverbs? Of course you can! There’s nothing wrong with adverbs in principle, especially when used sparingly. The problem arises when your adverbs are simply crutches holding up a weak, wrongly-chosen verb.
“Ling walked determinedly out of the house.”
In this example, is ‘walked’ really the best verb to describe his action? I doubt it.
“Ling marched out of the house.”
There you go! The sentence is crisper, cleaner, more concise, and the action plays out without the need of any adverbs or further description.
Some authors and editors will still insist on cutting out every adverb. If that’s what you want to do, fine.
If you are going to use them, just be careful not to go overboard. I recommend doing a quick search of “ly” in your manuscript to highlight each adverb, then look at each sentence and ask yourself, “Is there a more active verb I could use here instead?” If there is, change it. If not, keep the adverb.