How to use a verb: a tutorial about action.


What is a verb for?

Verbs are one of a writer’s best and favourite tools. Sentences love verbs. As readers, we get a buzz off them.

Verbs are motors. They’re engines. They’re action.

Ready to go micro with me? Here’s a hack: go get one of your current works in progress or a recent freewrite, and look at your sentences. Pay attention to your verbs.

Look for verbs that end in “-ing” and if you find any, circle them.

What are they doing?

1. Sometimes a word that ends in “ing” is a verb that has its motor turned off. It’s like putting a kickstand on a bike – it’s not going anywhere anymore, and it’s become a noun to focus on.

For instance: “She liked cooking.”

“Cooking” is still a verb, but here it’s become the focus of the sentence, not the engine. It’s like a car in a showroom: you can see the potential, but in this particular context, it’s just sitting there quietly to admire.

If you’ve circled these kinds of verbs (called “gerunds”), don’t worry about it for now.

2. Sometimes, a verb shifts into a revving engine, creating continuous action that never stops. These are the verbs ending in “ing” that I want you to pay attention to for now. For instance:

She’s dancing and laughing.

See her? She’s dancing and laughing. Continuously.

It’s like… in your mind, it’s still happening.

When you write a scene, you direct the energy of your story. You’re literally using language to manipulate the psychology, physiology and mind state of your reader.

It’s okay: you’re not a cult leader, you’re just a storyteller. This is how you create an experience for readers to remember.

The way you use verbs makes a big difference to the experience you design. Verbs have a lot of power! It’s good to know how to use them for different effects.

You can write a verb to make something happen. You can also modify a verb to make something always be happening forever.

Very different effects in a scene.

Sometimes in our early drafts, before we know what our story truly is about, we keep things sketchy and fluid by using verbs that don’t decide anything.

There’s nothing wrong with this, especially in a first draft. But if you use these continuous action verbs too often, the effect is foggy and nebulous. Even though all this stuff is moving, it feels like nothing is happening because nothing has HAPPENED. Energetically, we’re still waiting for the takeaway.

If she’s still dancing, we have to tend to that verb in our mind, like watching a spinning top. It’s fun to watch a spinning top, but it’s satisfying to see it land.

When you use verbs that keep revving, it can be hard for your reader to get a purchase on the action. It’s like the verb never gets to bring about the change that an action is meant to bring – so your reader is holding all of that ambivalence and potential change in her psyche.

(That character back there is still dancing and laughing. In your head, she’s still doing it.)

So: only use verbs this way when you want to create the sense of something always happening, and never beginning or ending. You’ll be a better writer when you use this kind of verb on purpose, for effect (if at all!) in your scenes. 

If you want to create a clear, defined action in your scene, shift your verb into drive and let it finish its action, like this:

She danced and laughed.

By the way, those “spinning” and “revving” verbs are called present participles. You don’t need to know that grammatical term to be a great writer – if you’re the kind of person who shudders when you see that link, just skip it.

But don’t skip using verbs on purpose. Shift your spinning verbs into decisive actions when you want a nice clean, direct, smash of a scene to land with your reader.

This is a great thing to do in a second draft. If you have the capacity to focus on verbs while also in the trance of freewriting, try to keep your verb actions finished and fastened in your first draft, too.

Let your verbs do what they want to do – make change – and avoid that continuous revving.


Photo credit (top): Charlie Larkman on Unsplash.

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1 comment

Kathy Martens

So good. I'm learning! And loving this. Always. Forever and ever. And now: I'm off to circle things that are spinning. xoxox

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