Strong Active Verbs

Literary students are lectured to ad infinitum on the strengths of active verbs. Yet what makes an active verb not just okay, but great? In this article, we analyze the impact of verb choice on scene construction and characterization.

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Manuscript Mentoring

March 16, 2021 · 7 Min Read

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Verb choice takes on added importance when writing isn’t solely functional. Fiction writers don’t just convey information—they entertain while doing so. Actions have to be clear, impactful and, when applicable, make scenes livelier and add depth to characters. Choosing the correct verb can be the difference between a reader being enthralled by your writing, or putting your book down to do something else.

 

The Difference Between Active and Passive Verb Forms

Before we define what makes a good active verb, let’s review what an active verb actually is. Broadly speaking, a verb is either active or passive. The thing doing the action is the subject in active verb constructions, whereas the receiver of the action is the subject in passive verb constructions. Both are grammatically correct, of course, but active verbs are preferred in fiction as they have more immediacy. Have a look at the following examples.

 

Passive verbs

The food is cooked by Gary.

The car is washed by Sally.

Tomorrow, the house will be painted by them.

In the above examples, the receivers of the action (food, car, house) take precedent over the doers of the action (Gary, Sally, them). Grammatically, “food”, “car”, and “house” are the subjects of the sentence.

 

Active verbs

Gary cooks the food.

Sally washes the car.

Tomorrow, they will paint the house. 

In these rewritten versions, “Gary”, “Sally”, and “they” are the subjects of the sentence. As you can see, the action is more immediate and the sentences are shorter—both traits that enhance the reading experience. In this article, we’ll be focusing on active voice constructions.

 

Methods to Enhance Active Verb Strength

Now that we’ve reviewed what active verbs actually are, let’s look at a few methods that can be used to strengthen them. Remember, as with many things in literature, there is no hard-and-fast rule. A single technique is not applicable to all situations. You should always consider the context of writing before you try to implement a technique.

 

Method #1: If the base form of a verb ends in “y”, then it is usually a weak word.

In general, words that end in “y” are weaker than those that don’t end in “y”. This rule of thumb also extends to verbs; in particular, the base form of verbs. In the following examples, verbs with a “y” ending base form have been replaced with verbs that don’t have a “y” ending in their base form.

The general implied that there was no hope.

(Base form: imply)

The general announced that there was no hope.

(Base form: announce)

They occupied the country.

(Base form: occupy)

They took the country.

(Base form: take)

She misled them.

(Base form: mislay)

She deceived them.

(Base form: deceive)

In the above examples, the rewritten versions have the same meaning. However, they come across as stronger. Announce is more assertive than imply; take is more aggressive than occupy; deceive is more grievous than mislay.

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Method #2: If the base form of a verb ends in “K” or “SH”, then it is usually a strong word.

Phonetically, these sounds are written as /K/ (for “K” endings) and /Ʃ/ (for “SH” endings). Both are termed voiceless sounds—sounds made without vocal cord vibration. Technical jargon aside, remember that when the base form of a verb ends in “K” or “SH”, it is usually a strong word. Let’s have a look at the following examples.

/K/ (“K”) Ending Examples

 

He criticized his character.

(Base form: criticize)

He attacked his character.

(Base form: attack)

Wendy shouted instructions.

(Base form: shout)

Wendy barked instructions.

(Base form: bark)

Larry pulled the handle.

(Base form: pull)

Larry yanked the handle.

(Base form: yank)

Attack is stronger than criticize. Bark stands out more than shout. Yank is more impactful than pull.

 

/Ʃ/ (“SH”) Ending Examples

Felix ran down the road.

(Base form: run)

Felix dashed down the road.

(Base form: dash)

She hit the door.

(Base form: hit)

She bashed the door.

(Base form: bash)

The cancelled law.

(Base form: cancel)

The abolished law.

(Base form: abolish)

Henry ground is teeth.

(Base form: grind)

Henry gnashed his teeth.

(Base form: gnash)

In the above examples, dash, bash, abolish, and gnash are stronger than their alternatives.

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Strong Verbs in Scene Construction

With the above methods in mind, let’s look at how scenes can be made livelier by changing the verbs in a description.

Alice followed her friends onto the dance floor. All around them, bodies were moving and gliding to the beat. People conversed in the dark corners of the club. They were hurting themselves, she thought. They would all be finished come morning, and then Professor Forest would not heap praise on them.

Alice followed her friends onto the dance floor. All around them, bodies were jerking and rocking to the beat. People spoke in the dark corners of the club. They were punishing themselves, she thought. They would all be finished come morning, and then Professor Forest would not lavish them with praise.

In the rewritten version, the actions of the revelers are made more eye-catching by substituting the verbs with stronger variants. The sinuousness of “move” and “glide” is replaced by the more jarring “jerking” and “rocking”. This stylistic change reflects the point of view of Alice (the protagonist). She doesn’t want to be at the club, and the verbs reflect her aversion to the dancers and their movements. The other changes reflect her surety of what she experiences; “punishing” and “lavish” are more absolute than “hurting” and “heap”. In the third sentence, “spoke” is more assertive than “conversed”. All of these changes impact how the reader experiences the scene. The club is not alluring, it is hostile to the protagonist (and, therefore, to the reader).

 

Strong Verbs in Characterization

Clever verb use can also have an impact on characterization. Have a look at the following description of a businessman. The writer wants his behavior to stand out. The character needs to be larger than life.

          Larry Broccoli picked up the receiver.

          “This is Broccoli,” he said, pointing to a cabinet. His aid dutifully ran over and started rifling through it.

          “What?” Larry went red in the face. “He’d dishonor us with that rate! Speak to him at the negotiations!” He slammed down the phone. “James! Are the files ready?”

          “Yes, Mr. Broccoli,” the aid said.

          “He thinks he has us all convinced!” Larry pointed his pen. “Not me! I’d sooner flee the country before I allow him to pillage our accounts!” He rose to his feet and picked up his suitcase. “Don’t dawdle, boy!” He hurried to the door, the whoosh of his passage sending the papers flying out of James' hands.

          Larry Broccoli picked up the receiver.

          “This is Broccoli,” he said, pointing to a cabinet. His aid dutifully ran over and started rifling through it.

          “What?” Larry went red in the face. “He’d impoverish us with that rate! Attack him at the negotiations!” He slammed down the phone. “James! Are the files ready?”

          “Yes, Mr. Broccoli,” the aid said.

          “He thinks he has us all brainwashed!” Larry brandished his pen. “Not me! I’d sooner flee the country before I allow him to ransack our accounts!” He rose to his feet and hooked his suitcase under his arm. “Don’t dawdle, boy!” He dashed to the door, the whoosh of his passage sending the papers flying out of James' hands.

As you can see, the character comes across as more dynamic in the rewritten version. He doesn’t want his negotiators to speak, he wants them to attack. He doesn’t point his pen—he brandishes it like a sword. He swaps out “convinced” and “pillage” for the more hyperbolic “impoverish” and “brainwashed”.

 

Conclusion

There are many aspects that impact the dynamism of an action. When it comes to strong active verbs, you should take the surrounding text into account before making any changes. Is your replacement verb repetitive? Is its meaning consistent? How does it sound when read out loud? That being said, there are patterns that can be exploited to enhance scenes and the actions of characters. As we’ve seen, one such pattern pertains to how a verb’s base form ends. When used properly, this technique can add oomph to what’s happening on the page.

Manuscript Mentoring

At Manuscript Mentoring, we carefully analyze all facets of our clients’ writing. This includes their use of active and passive voice constructions—and yes, the strength of their verbs. If you feel like your characters and scenes need more dynamism, then have a look at our Services page.