Story Verbing Part 1

Greetings, Story Empire mavens! Today’s post starts a two-parter on the nuances of choosing effective verbs to enhance description. Sure, it sounds simple, but you might be impressed with the possibilities. Per my pattern, this post starts with the basics so Part 2 next month will let us explore, play, experiment, brainstorm, innovate—pick some cool verbs and we’ll do ‘em. Smash that comment button and let me know what’s working or not with my posts. Remember to share and spread the word about Story Empire and this fine group of authors working to help you put out your best possible stories!

Story Verbing

Choosing expressive verbs is the most powerful technique for enhancing the vividness of your narrative descriptions. Setting your prose apart from mundane writing, it more effectively paints the imagery of your scenes. It can manipulate readers’ emotions and infuse your story with personality reflecting your point-of-view character(s) and/or narrator(s).

By practicing the following techniques, your skill at using descriptive verbs should continue to grow throughout your writing career. You will increasingly notice, understand, and admire examples in the works of other skilled writers. Draw upon them as you discover creative new ways to tailor these methods to your own work. Begin with these basic techniques:

Avoid UPOVRs (Unnecessary Point-of-View Reminders)

Once you establish the POV (point-of-view) for a scene, chapter, or entire story, rarely is it necessary to keep telling audiences whose POV they are reading. Seeding description with excess reminders such as he noticed, she saw, he remembered, it seemed, she was thinking, and they were aware of squanders verbs on bland phrases that usually fail to add creative energy to your narrative. Consider the following UPOVR-infused description:

Darlene looked in through the window. She saw someone crouching in the corner. She remembered  that he was the man from the information desk. She noticed that his shoes and pants were covered with mud. It seemed like he must have waded the river and climbed the embankment out back.

Eliminating the UPOVRs leaves room for active, more vivid verbs:

Darlene looked in through the window. The man from the information desk  crouched in the corner. Mud caked his shoes and pants. He must have waded the river and climbed the embankment out back.

Use the Active Voice

Basic syntax provides for the relationship between a subject and its noun to be either active or passive, sometimes referred to as the active voice or the passive voice. Savvy writers tend to favor the active voice.

In the passive voice, what most likely would be the subject of the sentence becomes an object, and what normally would be the object is shifted into the role of subject. If character Sammy tests a new car, writing The car was driven by Sammy is passive, making the car the subject with it merely receiving Sammy’s action. Converted to the active voice, that sentence would read: Sammy drove the car.

Converting most of your passive sentences into the active voice enhances the immediacy of your description, more effectively drawing readers into the action. Often you will find that it also reduces word count and thus quickens your story’s pace. Consider this passive description:

The basketball got dribbled by Ted. When the ball was shot, two points were scored. Mountains could be seen beyond the court. The sky was streakedby wispy clouds. The sports fans were impressed by the stunning scene.

This description is easily improved by simple conversion to the active voice:

Ted dribbled the basketball, then shot a basket and scored two points. Mountains towered beyond the court. Wispy clouds streaked the sky. The stunning scene impressed the sports fans.

Once you are skilled at eliminating unnecessary passive constructions, you will recognize occasional instances when the passive voice is preferred, usually whenever emphasizing the object is more important. When the point is that a hunter killed a deer, you would likely write: A hunter killed a deer. However, if the vanquished animal is extraordinary, you might emphasize the object: The last unicorn got killed by a hunter. Still, even in those cases, converting to the active voice allows you to emphasize what would have been the object while opening your writing to generally better active verbs: The last unicorn died from the shot of a hunter.

Avoid the BE verb

“To be” is a linking verb, one that is drastically overused in amateurish description. Good writers train themselves to become aware of using was/were (or in the present tense: is/are) to the point that every use grabs attention as if demanding elimination. Nearly all can be excised, leaving only the few that are truly needed. Consider these comparisons.

PASSIVE: There was a pot-belly stove in the corner of the cabin. (To avoid the linking was, make the stove the subject of the sentence.)

ACTIVE: A pot-belly stove stood in the corner of the cabin.

PASSIVE: The crowd was gradually growing excited.

ACTIVE: Excitement rippled through the crowd.

PASSIVE: I was surprised when your mother told me she was pregnant.

ACTIVE: Your mother surprised me with with news of her pregnancy.

PASSIVE: The Miami air was abuzz with the energy of playoffs.

ACTIVE: The Miami air buzzed with the energy of playoffs.

Use Action Verbs

Even when objects are static, action verbs can render them more interesting. Power lines that are over the field, even though they do not move, can benefit from action verbs: run the length of the field, or stretch from one end of the field to the other.  A large rock can sit in the dry creek bed, or it can use action verbs: soak up the sun’s rays, or anticipate a springtime-rain deluge. A coral head at the outer edge of a reef can be there, or it can use action verbs: hold fast against the currents, or cling to the edge of an abyss.

Objects already engaging in action often offer opportunities to enhance description with more powerful or nuance action verbs. A leaf that blows across the yard is more vividly described as dancing, cartwheeling, tumbling, or fleeing winter. The sun that rises in the east can peek over the horizon or hurl morning’s wake-up beams.

Even concepts can benefit from action verbs. Saying that motherhood is a great experience for a woman in vague and less interesting than saying it transforms her or distills her essence or fulfills her potential. Notice that those verbs carry different meanings. Another benefit to favoring action verbs is how it forces you to consider your choices and write more specifically.

Come back for Part 2!

We’ll bump these basic skills up to Adding personality, Adding descriptive extras, Converting from literal to metaphor, and Enhancing point-of-view. I’ll include oodles of cool examples so you can play along!

66 thoughts on “Story Verbing Part 1

  1. Pingback: Reblog: Story Verbing Part 1 by Stephen Geez on Story Empire | E.J. Robison

  2. Pingback: Story Verbing Part 1 – দৃষ্টিকোণ – Viewpoint

  3. Guilty. As most authors can attest, we all use the “to be” verb. It’s difficult to eliminate. The perfect reason to review your WIP and make necessary changes before sending to your editor. (In my case, it will come back with even more verb changes.)

    Good post. Looking forward to Part 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such a great reminder, Stephen. I try to always be aware of staying in active voice when writing, but it takes a concerted effort. Thank you for sharing this great information today. Good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jan. So much pat and even cliche phraseology in American English is passive that it’s easy to slip into the familiar instead of stretching into something new. What fun.


  5. I’m continually fighting the passive beast. I think my upbringing in Detroit schools has something to do with it but can’t be sure. The subject and object test makes a lot of sense. Super post, Stephen. Looking forward to part two.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m sure I’m guilty of all these transgressions in my writing, but they’re also all factors I correct in manuscripts I edit for clients—particularly passive voice and what you call UPOVRs. Excellent points, Stephen. Looking forward to part two.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post, Stephen. When writing, I often use the was words to get my thoughts down, but I always try to go back and clean them up. I’m not a fan of passive voice, yet it’s easy to fall into the trap of using it. Good editing and rewriting help us to polish our words.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Fabulous post, Stephen! I am a huge proponent of using active verbs. that bring humdrum scenes alive.
    This whole post, along with your examples is a wonderful reminder of how to enrich our writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks for the excellent summary and examples, Stephen. I love how ProWritingAid catches passive verbs, but each requires an idea replacement. However, after long-term use of PWA, it feels strange whenever a passive verb fits better. You explained the feeling!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. You’ve listed everything that puts me off a book! I just had to stop reading one at 30% due to this stuff, not to mention all the split infinitives and repeated words … thesaurus anyone? And don’t get me started on over using those ly adverbs … kindly, sarcastically, brightly, cautiously, etc.! I look forward … joyfully 😂 … to part 2. Thanks for sharing, Stephen 💕🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Pingback: Story Verbing Part 1 | Legends of Windemere

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