In every workshop I have facilitated, participated in, or observed, at some point there is talk about verb use. This is fine – verbs are part of every complete sentence, so why not open up that discussion? The catch, however, comes with the different ways we use and misuse verbs, the ones that sound cool (but aren’t), and the simple verbs that can distance a reader.
Here’s a quick grammar review: In the sentence, “As I was walking home, I had an idea,” what is the verb? “Walking” seems obvious, but in fact it is, “was.” This is called The Passive Voice – when we use am/is/are/were as the verb instead of something active. This sentence quickly becomes more engaging by simply changing it to, “As I walked home, I had an idea.” The verb is now, “walked” and the reader is walking with the character. It may sound surprising, but switching to active voice versus passive voice can bring a reader closer to the action. Descriptions – I am cold, etc. – do not get a huge boost, but sentences describing an event or occurrence draw the reader in.
Now for the cool verbs that can take the fun out of things. Often, when we write dialogue, we can find ourselves using “said” quite a lot. The “he said/she said/they said/we said” routine gets old. However, throwing in different verbs to mix it up can often be more of a distracted. If your character is talking, having them extoll, demand, counter, rebuke, or emphasize can move the mood around unnecessarily. If people are talking, sometimes let them just “say” things, letting the dialogue run the scene. The same goes for simple things like walking, running, or other simple actions. There’s the temptation to traipse around, gallop, trot, sprint, stroll, or any number of ways to walk. However, it might surprise you to know that most people just walk (or run), and that’s fine. Unless the way your character goes from one place to another is important, don’t crack open the thesaurus and drop some big words. The meaning should come from their drives and motivations.
Lastly, a note on misusing verbs. If you want to use a bold verb, keep in mind what it means, what it might imply, and how the reader might be distracted. I have seen too many people mix up extort and exhort, implicit and implicate, and so on. There’s no shame in having a dedicated tab to Wiktionary.org in the background just so you get the right word in there. As for the package that comes with a word, run, prance, gallop, and trot each suggest a style of running, and are not always interchangeable. And yes, some words have a very distinct meaning but carry a lot of subtext. Example: If something’s growth is held back, that can be referred to as “retarded growth.” The meaning is correct, but don’t think for one second that some readers won’t be distracted by the word usage. Even though no malice is intended, such casual use of a loaded word can derail a reader’s interest. I am not saying you shouldn’t use certain words. I only suggest that some words have consequences, and you should use them at your own risk.
Ultimately, your verb choices will carry a lot of weight with your stories. Using them effectively will pay off every time, but this requires some heavy lifting on your part. Choose wisely.