Most writers tend to use too few active verbs and too many passive ones in their stories. Passive verbs are like telling readers what you, the author, think is the case. They don't allow readers to see, feel or experience the scenes for themselves. Passives don’t pull readers into a story in an active, immediate or personal way. Passive verbs explain what happened to the character, as if the character was acted upon instead of being a character who took action.
These verbs include was, were, had, seemed, thought, etc. Basically any verb whose action a reader can’t visualize is probably too passive to hold much impact. Another form of passives are gerunds, which take a normally active verb and adds an “-ing” to the end and starts it with a was type verb, like was running.
Certainly sometimes passives are just fine. They serve a real purpose - at times. But most times an active verb will enliven a sentence. And active verbs are particularly essential in active, hot, tense scenes.
For instance, in a scene where Sally is being pursued and her car suddenly dies, here are a couple of examples of verb use:
The motor went dead. Sally was scared and her hands were shaking more than ever as she took her hands off the steering wheel. Her mind was racing at a dizzying speed so that all she felt was numb.
This should be a tense scene, but we have 5 passives with only took a possibly visual act - but not too exciting at that. By activating the verbs you create the tension we need:
The motor died. Sally’s hands shook as she snatched them off the wheel in fear. Her mind raced at a dizzying speed as a cold numbness threatened to steal her breath.
See how much more intense this feels. We can see every action listed. The reader feels dizzy right along with Sally. We have verbs of actions we can see or feel in some way. Readers are suddenly in the story instead of being told about it.
Verb activation is probably the most important aspect of writing in general to create strong scenes. It falls under the “Show, Don’t Tell” adage presented to most writers early in their writing. Yet most writers - even though they nod wisely in agreement, fully understanding the importance in this simple method of activating verbs to energize their story - still slip back into the passive was trap as they write.
So be ruthless! Look with skepticism at every was and were, seemed and “-ing” word. Replace them with active verbs and you’ll have a stronger scene.
Sandra E.Haven has had her articles and fiction published in the U. S. and Europe-from short fiction to human interest articles, mainstream to genre. Since 1990 she has provided comprehensive editing services for writers and book publishers, resulting in publication for numerous authors. She specializes in comprehensive editing, which includes content, characterization, plot, tone and continuity. She deals in most fiction genres with an emphasis on mysteries, fantasies, and stories for children as well as memoirs and personal essays. For more information see Bristol Editing Services Copyright, Sandra E. Haven