Active verbs, their use, and their limits

When I taught creative writing to high school students in Minnesota, one of my favorite lessons involved a semi-choral reading of Annie Dillard’s “The Death of a Moth.” I gave students an excerpt from the essay (you can find the excerpt at the bottom of this post and the full essay at the link above) and read it aloud, asking them, as I read, to underline “every word that stood out.” And so I read Dillard’s gorgeous, meditative description of the animal trapped in a candle, gruesome yet beautiful, so realist and yet symbolic.

Photos in this post are from a family trip to northern Minnesota, October 2016.

Then, I began to read again, the same passage, just as I did before, but this time, the students joined me: “I’ll read,” I said, “but every time I get to a word you underlined, you need to read it out with me.” Usually this led to a fair amount of laughter, as students were afraid at first to be the only one to speak, and I would coax and encourage and smile and show them how many other students had underlined the same word.

This was the moment the class clown becomes the teacher’s pet, because the bolder students led the pack, usually by reading along with words like “the” and “I.” But once self-consciousness settled down, this was a magical time, every time I taught this lesson, for sometimes a single student read with me, and some words I read alone, but then, at a moment, the room filled with voices like an orchestra, sometimes quiet, and then a burst of notes, and the words amplified, vaulted through the windowless classroom like moths themselves–

The lesson was our introduction to active verbs, the idea that the most powerful words we can incorporate into our writing are not adjectives as one might expect, but the actions. For when we reached the end of the reading and the class fell silent and I let the moment hang there before speaking again–it was one of the rare moments I could count on a class being moved by a text–we looked back then at what we had underlined, and a student who had volunteered to underline on a fresh copy the words read out by a large number of students shared out what she had heard. It was the verbs. A few adjectives, the comparison to the immolating monk, and to Rimbaud, but mostly it was the verbs:

caught— burnt—held—crossed—flapped—dropped—stuck—flamed—frazzled—fried—ignited—enlarging—creating—contracted—vanished—clawed—curled—blackened—ceased—disappearing—jerked—spattering—crisped—burnt away—heaving—cracked—determine—mated—laid—glowing—fraying—jammed—kept burning—rose—widened—robed—immolating—burned—blew—bending—leaning—glowing—glimpsed—kindled—pooled—

There is a lot worth discussing in Dillard’s essay, but today we’ll focus on these action words, their power, and then their limits.

Verbs: active and stative

Verbs form a central component of every sentence in English, and they can be divided into two broad categories (there are plenty of other categories of verbs out there, but for our purposes, we’ll look at these):

  • Active verbs–these are the star of the show, and a good rule of thumb for these is that one can visualize the action. I say “jump,” and you can imagine someone jumping. I say “stream,” and the action is perhaps more illusory, but we can still get some visual. When I ask a class to make a list of verbs, these are the ones they run to, and for good reason: they stand out; they scream, “action!”
  • Stative verbs–these include our be (and all its forms: is, am, are, were, was, being, been) and have, but also emotion words like love, hate, like, and trust, cognitive words like believe, think (when it expresses an opinion), recognize, suppose, understand, doubt, want, and sense words like smell, seem, resemble, sound, and look (as in appear). Stative verbs tell us not about an action but about the state or condition of something. These are the verbs that we most often forget are verbs at all, and especially be and have, which we use ubiquitously, not only as main verbs but also as auxiliaries to form continuous and perfect aspects.

Among all verbs in English, active or stative, be is by far the most frequently used. In fact, is, are, and be are all among the 15 most commonly used words in spoken English. The modal can comes in at number 19, and have is 20. The first active verb to show up on the list is the fairly prosaic use at number 57.

Gordi the Corgi exploring the fall leaves. I think he would prefer active verbs.

How active verbs benefit our writing

A rule of thumb in writing says that replacing stative verbs (and especially be) with active alternatives will improve our writing. And I think that, in many cases, this is true. As an example, consider a few stative-verb sentences and some active-verb revisions:

StativeActive
The square was full of people.People thronged the square.
The square teemed with people.
Chaos reigned in the square.
The men were gone.The men had vanished.
The men had disappeared.
No one remained.
Torvald has breakfast at 9:30.Torvald sits down to breakfast at 9:30.
Torvald eats breakfast at 9:30.
Torvald’s breakfast begins at 9:30.
Torvald’s breakfast arrives at 9:30.
The couple looked unhappy.Their faces showed unhappiness.
The couple glowered.
The couple frowned.
Unhappiness dripped from them.

A few observations from the above examples:

1. Active verbs are more specific.

Note that in most cases, the stative verb gives more general information, while the active verb revisions encourage a more visual, specific statement. To state that “The square was full of people” certainly gives an image, but it is not so vibrant as the three alternatives. If Torvald “has” breakfast at 9:30, it tells us very little of his character, whereas learning that the breakfast “arrives” at 9:30 suggests a strict timetable, perhaps an upper-class diner being served, one who has particular expectations about his breakfast: a simple shift in verb can call forth an array of implications.

2. Active verbs engage the reader.

When our verbs become active, we often find ourselves moving away from objective judgments in a narrative and more towards visual description. This, really, often puts us in the realm of the age-old writing advice “show; don’t tell.” This concept suggests that instead of explaining to readers what is happening (a kind of authorial summary of a story), we should instead show the story unfolding, using description and imagery to make the reader feel as if she/he were actually present.

The active verb examples above pull us more readily into the story. Saying that someone “looked unhappy” feels more exterior than saying they “glowered.” There’s more of a visual here. We’re more in the perspective of the character observing, and this strengthens our emotional reaction as readers.

3. Active verbs invite interpretation.

When we as readers are put in the position of watching the story rather than being told, we must give more active thought to interpreting the events. Consider the above example about the unhappy couple. Because it is quite general, it doesn’t necessarily invite divergent implications. We may be less likely to consider what the unhappiness implies–it is simply a fact about them. However, when we hear instead that the couple is frowning, we are required to do the work of asking what that frown means. We can simply jump directly back to “it means they’re unhappy,” but we may also consider further: does it mean they’re unhappy with each other? Or are they united in unhappiness about something else? Is this frown product of a momentary annoyance, or is it born of a deeper trouble, a systemic kind of frown? It’s not that we couldn’t ask these questions with the first sentence, but nothing is really inviting us to do so. I think the active verbs help set our mind to activity too. That’s valuable.

Limits of active verbs

The show-don’t-tell mantra discussed above, overused as it might be, is a valuable consideration and something that a lot of us continue to strive towards. Obviously sometimes “telling” is completely appropriate and preferable; sometimes a “shown” scene is. As with any narrative technique, the wisdom of the writer is to know the difference.

So it is too with active verbs. It’s easy, once we discover their power, to embark on a stative-verb-massacre. I’ve done this. I’ve combed through pages for every “was” and “have,” and indeed many times I’ve found a stronger rewrite that involved an active verb. Sometimes not. To return to “The Death of a Moth,” alongside her glorious active verbs, Dillard employs seven forms of be in the excerpt I used. Are these seven missed opportunities? Hardly. Let’s explore.

1. Authorial judgments aren’t bad. Neither are the stative verbs that suggest them.

This goes back to the show-don’t-tell advice. The idea that an author should never make a general statement is simply not true. Authorial judgments provide a particular kind of insight into a story, giving a particular tone that suggests universal truth, and if that is what we’re going for, then we should use it. In more character-focused or philosophical stories, these kinds of statements are fully appropriate. If we mean that the men were gone, then we should write, “The men were gone.”

2. Stillness and the stative verbs that imply it aren’t bad either.

A lot of writing advice suggests that action and conflict are always necessary. And in the scope of a story as a whole, I think this is often the case. However, this preference for action quickly gets generalized to suggest that any sentence that isn’t action-packed is a waste of words.

With that idea I forthrightly disagree. The excitement of a page-turning action novel is breathtaking, and that is all the more reason to stop sometimes to take a breath. This is pacing. This is a refusal to rush. Action does keep us engaged and moving forward, and we need it in our writing, but we also need stillness. We need points of reflection. Thrillers too vary their pacing, because if they didn’t there would be no contrast, and the high-action scenes would fall flat. Stillness is where our characters develop, where emotion percolates, and where we as readers pause to think about the story.

When Dillard writes that “The moth’s head was fire,” we do slow down. We do hover over that image. We should. That’s part of its beauty.

3. Stative verbs are beautifully invisible.

In the same unit as the active verb lesson described above, I used to lead an activity called “word jail.” I asked students to identify what they thought were their most over-used words. We put those words behind bars and then brainstormed a list of jazzier, more descriptive, active alternatives.

The purpose here was to encourage creative word choice, to push ourselves beyond the bounds of our usual vocabulary. And to that end, I think the activity is worthwhile. But there’s a loss here too. And not because sometimes lessons in word choice lead to really awkward sentences (which they do), and not because be ends up being the enemy (which it isn’t), but because it is by many of these words’ very overuse, their very ubiquity, that they gain their greatest power: invisibility.

I agree that “good” and “bad,” words that we might use intending to have an emotional impact but which really don’t, I agree that these are overused. In our writing, they do often belong in word jail. But I want to talk now about the much-maligned said.

A bit of morning mist still spread out on the water.

Said is not a stative verb, but it’s often said to be in the same category as be because of its lack of connotation. It is extremely neutral, not leading to any deeper implications. Some of my earliest memories of being taught about writing involve the demonization of said. I remember working with classmates to brainstorm a hundred alternatives. Indeed, it was a thrilling exercise in creativity and vocabulary development. But who said said was so awful?

When we use said, our primary purpose is to introduce dialogue. Our focus is on what the character is saying; less so on the manner of speaking. When we toss in alternatives like stated or murmured or confirmed without clear necessity, we risk pulling our reader’s focus away from what matters. Said blends into the background, more like the or I than a verb, truly, and if we overuse it, it is only when we forget that, when the manner of speech is indeed the focus, many varied words for speech exist.

The lesson here is broader: an active verb, or any word choice that goes beyond the ordinary, draws attention to itself, and that can be a win or loss. As ever, which it is depends on context. Look at your saids, and consider whether they need changing. Or look at your mumbles, and consider whether they are really saids.

4. Stative verbs are realistic.

On the subject of dialogue, it’s worth noting that be and have and even good and bad are such common words because they’re useful. That most-common-words-in-spoken-English list linked to earlier contains a plethora of so-called boring, overused words. The truth is, this is how we speak, and at the very least in dialogue, for most characters, a lot of word-choice recommendations should go out the window. Rendering believable dialogue means using a lot of common words, and using them well can be a true challenge. But characters (or even first-person narrators) who use too many active verbs and too many test-prep vocabulary words will turn us off, distract us with their affected speech, and end up obscuring the story at hand.

Final thoughts

Active verbs are a good tool. Use them, consider them, and sometimes avoid them. All good things in moderation, after all.

Do you have thoughts on active verbs and their use in writing? Do you have words you would like to send to jail? I’d love to hear.

Finally, here’s the excerpt I used from Annie Dillard’s essay. It’s worth reading. Enjoy. Be well.

Jimmy

         One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second.  Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine.  At once the light contracted again and the moth's wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old?  Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle's round pool.

         And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth's body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth's head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

         She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning — only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brain in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet. 

Excerpted from Annie Dillard's "The Death of a Moth"
Out for a paddle on the lake. Clouds ripple out. It’s still.
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7 thoughts on “Active verbs, their use, and their limits

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  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is the first commonsense, balanced discussion of verbs I’ve read since I first stumbled across ‘show don’t tell’. That said, I’d call this discussion ‘story craft’ rather than creative writing because it deals with the tools we use to create the stories we publish. Sadly, those tools are not taught much any more.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is the first commonsense, balanced discussion of verbs I’ve read since I first stumbled across ‘show don’t tell’. That said, I’d call this discussion ‘story craft’ rather than creative writing because it deals with the /tools/ we use to create the stories we publish. Sadly, those tools are not taught much any more. I think your students were lucky to have. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for the kind words and the reblog! I’m glad you found this useful. I think a lot of writing advice gets offered without really considering why it’s worth following, and this can lead to generalization, when the truth of good writing is that every decision is context-specific. Your vote of confidence means a lot, that people are actually taking the time to read this. Cheers! : )
      Jimmy

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      1. Generalising is one of our ‘super powers’, but social media amplifies those generalities into truths set in concrete. It was truly refreshing to read a how-to article that provided a balanced narrative.
        You’ll always be welcome here, Jimmy. 🙂

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  3. Good stuff. I think there’s definitely a balance between using active and stative verbs – and this is true both of fiction and non-fiction. As for word jail – that’s for adverbs. Some of them, anyway.

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    1. Absolutely – the balance has to be the way to go, choosing what’s right for the specific sentence you’re writing. I need to do some thinking about adverbs. I think they’re another one that often get over-used, but I’m a bit loath to banish them all. As you say, some of them. : ) Thanks for reading!

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