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Set Story into Motion—Use Meaningful Verbs

October 11, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 12, 2013

Verbs bring action—motion and movement—to our sentences. Without verbs, nothing happens.

Verbs move story people, both literally and emotionally.

Without verbs, characters and story go nowhere. Without the right verbs at the right time, characters and story go to the wrong places or get there in the wrong way, lacking impact or being overwhelmed by unnecessary actions.

Let’s talk about verbs, about choosing the ones that best fit the story you want to write.

Verb Choice
There are thousands upon thousands of English verbs. We use them to show action, both physical and mental, and to show states of being. There are so many verbs that we should be able to find just the right one for our sentences so that those sentences can build upon one another to create paragraphs and scenes and chapters that tell our stories exactly as we want them told.

But that means we have to choose the right verbs. And that means right for the necessary action, for the mood of the scene, for the genre and era. Right means the particular words the viewpoint character or speaker would use. Right means the best word in terms of the visual on the page and the fit with surrounding words and the sound and rhythm of a sentence or section of text.

Right means the best choice for creating the impact needed for a scene.

When you choose your verbs, do so with all these elements in mind. If you can’t think of the perfect verb as you’re writing your first draft, don’t worry. Stick in some other verb or a marker of some kind and look for a better word when you rewrite or edit.

If you’re on a roll, there’s no reason to stop to search for the perfect verb (or any perfect word). There are plenty of reasons to not stop. You can lose your momentum if you stop to pull out your thesaurus or another resource and start searching for the right verb. Leave the search for the exact verb for another time. But do eventually make time for that search.

Using the right words can help your stories soar, can create memorable characters, can build spectacular and unique fictional worlds.

Using common words can dull your stories. Using words that don’t match a character can create confusing stories. Using words that others have used (clichés) can make your stories sound tired and familiar.

Choose verbs to eliminate these writing weaknesses.

When you choose your verbs, realize that they’re filled with power. They stop, start, or continue motion. They influence not only the fictional characters but your readers. They push, pull, and lead the plot.

Verbs reveal. They reveal what’s happening in a world a thousand years in the past or two thousand years in the future. They reveal a character’s deepest thoughts. They reveal a character’s heart.

Test Your Verbs
Examine your verbs—do you use a few of them regularly? Too often? Investigate your own writing and change verbs that you use too often. Change verbs that don’t have enough oomph for what the scene needs. Change verbs that are close but not quite right.

You’ll have your own list of commonly used verbs, but verbs that I see in great proportion include

put

placed

sit

stand

walk

look

have

seem

feel

see

Replace the common or overused with the particular. Change verbs that reveal nothing to those that reveal something specific, some little touch. Choose a verb that nails a character’s movement or emotion or thought in a particular moment given all that’s happening right then.

Replace not only verbs you use too frequently, but verbs that dull your sentences. No, you don’t always need to have some absurdly descriptive verb—sometimes a man simply walks. But he won’t always walk. Sometimes a character strides or flounces or struts. Sometimes he hurries or races or stomps across a room.

The verb you choose will give the reader a visual of the action or of a character’s motions as well as reveal the character’s emotions. But which character’s emotions, you might be asking. The one who is moving as well as the viewpoint character who uses the word to describe the other character’s movements. (This would be the same character if the viewpoint character is describing his own movement.)

Much can be revealed by a word. If I say someone else is stalking me, stalking reveals my emotion, what I’m feeling about the other person’s movements and intention. Stalking also reveals the other person’s movement, helps the reader see that person in motion.

You’ll want to use verbs that can perform dual-duty, if that’s possible, revealing something about two characters at the same time.

Shading and Nuance
If you use a verb unusual for you or unfamiliar to you, be aware that it may have a shading that you don’t understand.

I often find words with negative connotations used when the negative is not what the writer had intended to convey. Look up uses of unfamiliar words to see how those words fit into sentences and paragraphs. Make sure you understand the shadings of verbs and their nuances. It’s likely that there is a word for what you want to say—you just need to find the right word. Not every synonym is the perfect fit.

Simply using a thesaurus isn’t enough; you sometimes don’t get the full picture of a word’s meanings without seeing the word in use.

If you’re in doubt about any word, ask another writer or several people what they think of when they hear such a word—be sensitive to multiple meanings and to connotations.

The Progressive
Verbs have tenses and forms and aspects, yet we’re not going to delve into a full exploration of those elements of verbs in this article. I do, however, want to talk about the progressive (sometimes called the continuous), a verb aspect.

Aspect, as it relates to verbs, has to do with time. The action of a verb in the present progressive is happening at the same moment the action is described. For fiction, that typically means at the moment the sentence is read by the reader.

Gerty is jumping on her trampoline.

Billy Bob and Enid are hoping for a baby.

Each time I read these sentences, Gerty is currently jumping on that trampoline and Billy Bob and Enid are hoping for that baby.

The action of a verb in the past progressive happened in the past, but it was ongoing for a (limited) period of time. The past progressive can also be used (and often is) to show action that happened at the same time some other action took place.

Gerty was eating dinner when someone knocked at the door.

Enid and Billy Bob were playing pinochle as the snow rose around them.

Milton was washing his car.

Both past and present progressive are formed using the verb to be and the present participle.

I want you to consider the progressive as you write and edit because while it is a useful construction, it often isn’t the one you want for your sentences.

Most of the time our stories use verbs in the simple present or simple past.

I hammer away at the marble night after night, hoping to create a masterpiece.

Teddy raced after Boris.

The simple present and past allow readers to feel the impact of story events as they happen, often one after the other.

The progressive, when it’s necessary, helps us see ongoing action and action that happens while something else is going on. But the progressive, with its use of the helping verb to be, can grow quickly annoying.

I was reading a book by Jana Mars. I was eating dinner and getting the book sticky. I was afraid that my brother would be mad; he didn’t like me messing with his stuff, and the book was a new one that he hadn’t yet read.

I was thinking that it was time to put the book back on his shelf when I heard the sound of his key in the lock.

I was shaking.

You can see how tedious such wording can be. The repetition of I was will get old very quickly.

I often see the progressive used when the simple past or present is not only called for, but the better choice.

The simple past and simple present are often more striking, capable of creating a stronger impact, a more decisive impact.

Reserve the use of the progressive for when actions are ongoing and should be appreciated for that very quality or when you need to show how a second action takes place at the same time another unfolds.

I’d been hanging out at my brother’s house, reading that new book by Jana Mars, but eating dinner at the same time, and the book got sticky. Afraid that my brother would be mad since he didn’t like me messing with his stuff, I returned the book to its shelf. I’d just dropped into my chair when his key turned in the lock.

I shook, wondering if he would discover what I’d done.

Look for opportunities to reduce use of the progressive unless it truly is what you need for the moment.

Passive Voice
Passive voice has a bad reputation. Some of it deserved, maybe, but there are legitimate uses for the passive voice. It’s the overuse or incorrect use by writers that makes it seem so bad. You don’t want to use the passive in your fiction unless you’re doing so for a purpose—the active is almost always the better choice.

In the active voice, the sentence subject performs the action. The subject does the doing. The subject verbs—he eats, he sleeps, he drops a hammer on his toe.

A passive construction is simply when the subject of a sentence is not the instigator or doer of the action but the recipient. Instead of the subject doing something, as happens in most sentences, in the passive voice someone or something acts upon the subject.

The boy was hit by the football.

The lanterns were hung in the trees.

While this second sentence  is in the passive voice—someone other than the lanterns did the hanging—note that this very similar sentence is not passive voice—

The lanterns were hanging in the trees.

In this sentence were hanging describes a state of being. We are not saying that someone hung the lanterns in this sentence.

Note: The presence of forms of the verb to beis, was, were, and so on—is not the test for passive voice. If someone tells you that you’ve used the passive voice because you have sentences such as these—

The young man was a fireman.

The kids were running down the street.

MaryAnn is my best friend.

—recognize that that person is mistaken. Overuse of to be may create weak writing, but use of that verb is not necessarily passive voice. Actually, more likely than not, its use doesn’t indicate the passive.  One better indicator for the passive is use of the word by. If someone is affected by someone or something else, it’s likely the sentence is passive. Yet the absence or presence of by is not sufficient; not all passive sentences include the word by.

We use passive construction less in fiction than in other writing styles, but it’s not unheard of. Use it when you don’t need to tell readers who performed an action or when a character doesn’t know who or doesn’t want to reveal who was behind an act or when the accent is on the subject of the sentence and not the person or thing who did something to him or it.

The jewelry store was (or had been) robbed.

The scout’s arm had been broken.

The ghost hunters were stalked through the forest.

The jewelry store didn’t do the robbing, the scout’s arm didn’t break itself or anything else, and the ghost hunters didn’t do the stalking.

The accent or focus of these sentences is on the subjects—the store, the scout’s arm, the ghost hunters. This may have been the writer’s intent, or perhaps she simply didn’t consider a different wording.

Rewrite passive sentences when you haven’t used the passive voice on purpose, when a change would create a stronger impact, or when you need to show who did what—often the best choice in fiction.

The Beltway Bandits robbed their third jewelry store.

The crazed scoutmaster broke the boy’s arm.

Hmm . . . Let’s not change the third sentence. Neither the reader nor the ghost hunters know the identity of the stalker.

The Career Verb
A great way to keep readers reminded of a character’s background is to use verbs that reflect the character’s occupation.

A carpenter may note that others pound or hammer away or smooth rough edges. A trial lawyer may think that other characters redirect or obfuscate or judge.

Make a list of verbs common to a character’s career or occupation or hobby and then have him use those verbs in his dialogue, his thoughts, and in his descriptions. He can describe himself or others using such verbs, or he may simply use these verbs in his thoughts.

A teacher may test himself or others. He may assign tasks or train others. Or he may use these verbs when he sees other characters doing these things.

A card player may fold or bet, go all in or shoot the moon. Or he may describe others performing these actions.

You don’t have to use these verbs only when a teacher is in the classroom or when the card player is playing—use these kinds of verbs throughout a story to subtly remind readers who a character is.

You don’t want to go overboard, of course, using only such verbs or using them again and again. But you can put them to use to create ties to a character’s background. Keep them subtle but active throughout your fiction.

_______________________

Verbs can direct story in so many ways by helping the reader see the action, see how a character moves when he’s beset by the events in his story.

A character who mopes is different from the one who races or glides. The character who actively searches or watches is different from the one who simply sees.

Verbs can snare your readers, tempting them into following your characters and their adventures.

Verbs also reveal feelings and emotions and help the reader feel as well.

Verbs create the feel of your stories, so choose them with care, with purpose in mind. Don’t be afraid to change them as you rewrite and edit. Don’t be afraid to explore, looking for just the right word to convey the necessary motion and emotion. Set your stories into motion—and keep them moving—by using meaningful verbs.

Put characters in motion.

Put emotion into your characters.

Choose verbs that help your characters both move and feel.

***

Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

14 Responses to “Set Story into Motion—Use Meaningful Verbs”

  1. As always, Beth, your blogs are inspirational even to those of us who edit for a living.
    “Career Verbs….A carpenter may note that others pound or hammer away or smooth rough edges. A trial lawyer may think that other characters redirect or obfuscate or judge.” I love it! Thank you.

  2. Eve Rabi says:

    Great article Beth. I loved it. Keep em rolling :) :)

  3. Thanks, Eve. I’ll certainly try. I have a couple dozen articles begun, but this one demanded to be written. I guess someone needed to hear about verbs.

  4. Sondra Kraak says:

    Great summary. So much to chew and digest. As always, I realize I have so many areas to grow in. Thanks.

  5. Rosi says:

    Thanks for this article. There are lots of great tips in here, but the career verbs is terrific.

  6. Geoff says:

    Beth, thanks so much for posting this article. These are all things I know, but I so rarely keep them in my mind when I am writing. You articulated exactly the issues I catch during my self-editing (or which I miss and have pointed out by my beta readers). I hope other aspiring writers like me take this advice to heart!

    • Geoff, aren’t you glad that we don’t have to create perfect prose the first time through a sentence, a scene, or a story? Thank goodness for rewriting and for honest beta readers. I’m glad the article was a positive reminder.

  7. Barbara says:

    Thanks, I needed that! Just put my first ‘baby’ out to Beta Readers after critiques online, and partially with a local writer’s group. I struggle with choosing the right word many times. I’m hoping to get better with the use of the many articles I’m trying to incorporate into my brain and my writing.
    Thanks, again.

  8. Barbara, you are welcome. I’m always glad to hear that an article’s been an encouragement. Best of success without your first novel; I hope every step of the process proves to be enjoyable.

  9. Rena says:

    Thanks . Great article I am sure your tips will become useful as I hope to start writing my experiences in blogs.

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